Cyber Espionage

Hacking Away at Germany

Their little voter booths may be more secure than the government's computers. Source: Julian Stratenschulte/DPA

Aside from climate, trade and terrorism, Chancellor Angela Merkel may have another hot-button topic to discuss with fellow heads of state from Russia and China on the sidelines of the G20 – their cyber attacks on her own country. The issue could raise some tension at the Hamburg summit that begins on Friday.

In a report published just three days ahead of the high-level global talks, the German domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), pointed to a growing number of incidents of cyber espionage in the country by Russian and Chinese hacker groups. The targets include the foreign, finance and economic ministries, in addition to the chancellery and the military. Also under attack are the defense, aerospace and car industries as well as research institutions.

Authorities are concerned about the rising tide of attacks and warn of potential threats to democracy and society at large. While cyber espionage could lead to the loss of sensitive information, delayed-action malware planted in computer systems could manipulate data and sabotage equipment, especially critical infrastructure such communication networks and energy grids. Authors of the report referred to the malware as “silent, ticking digital time bombs.”

The report lists Russia and China as the main cyber-spy countries, albeit each with its own particular focus.  “Russian state agencies are trying to influence parties, politicians and public opinion,” the authors write. Hans-Georg Maassen, head of the domestic intelligence agency, told reporters he believed the country was less interested in “supporting a particular candidate” than it was in “damaging the trust in the functioning of our democracy.” Destabilizing Germany as core member of the European Union, policymakers in Berlin agree, would weaken the bloc and strengthen Russia’s influence in the region.

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If we didn't know him as Turkey's president, he could certainly pass as a secret agent. Source: Bloomberg

In May 2015, hackers captured 16 gigabytes of data in a cyber attack on the German parliament, the Bundestag. They penetrated the computers of 14 parliamentarians, including one in Ms. Merkel’s chancellery. The group behind the attack, known as Fancy Bear or APT 28 for Advanced Persistent Threat, was the same as the one that hacked private emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign team in last year’s US presidential election. Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière said he “expected some of this information to be leaked in the coming weeks,” ahead of the federal election on September 24.

Russia is also intensively deploying internet trolls to influence public opinion and push pro-Russian views, according to the report, which notes a sharp rise in propaganda and disinformation campaigns.

In a guest column to appear on Thursday in Handelsblatt, Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote, with a straight face, that Russia was “among the first countries to note the danger” of cyber-criminals and hacker groups and has called on all countries “to combat these negative phenomena.”

China, on the other hand, has increased since President Xi Jinping took office in 2013 and is engaged in political cyber espionage aimed mostly at gaining information about political events, such as the G20 summit, the authors note.  The country also shows an undiminished interest in economic espionage, making large use of social media such as LinkedIn and Facebook to make contact with Germans.

Following the failed July 15 coup in Turkey, the report cites a “noticeable increase” in spying by the country’s MIT foreign intelligence agency in Germany. The spying is focused primarily on backers in Germany of both the banned separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, and the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames for the failed coup.


John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsbatt Global. To contact the author:

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