Germans fear hacks and leaks before September vote

Despite the extra vigilance, over a dozen cyber experts, German lawmakers and officials interviewed say the leaders face a huge challenge if they come under cyber attacks.  

Andrea Shalal –
After election hacks in the United States and France, Germany is worried it will be next. Four months before an election in which Chancellor Angela Merkel hopes to win another term, Germany’s national cyber security agency BSI warned political parties to shore up their computer defences. The head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency last week accused Moscow of gathering a large amount of political data in cyber attacks, and said it would be up to the Kremlin whether to meddle in the September 24 elections.
The German government has boosted funding to the BSI and will add 180 jobs to the agency this year. It is also expanding a cyber defence
centre and has stepped up data sharing with private sector firms. The government is even studying legislative changes to allow it to strike back — by destroying an enemy’s servers, say — in the event of a major cyber attack.
Despite the extra vigilance, over a dozen cyber experts, German lawmakers and government officials interviewed by Reuters say the leaders of Europe’s most powerful nation face a huge challenge if they come under attacks like those on US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and France’s incoming president, Emmanuel Macron, whose emails were hacked.
Security researchers and US officials believe Russian hackers were behind the US attack, and have warned Berlin that Moscow now has its sights on Germany.
The origin of the hack of Macron’s emails last week is still under investigation.
In particular, German authorities worry that emails obtained by hackers in a 2015 cyber attack on the German parliament will be leaked before the September 24 election.
Two sources familiar with the matter said one of the dozen or so accounts hit was Merkel’s parliamentary account, though her primary work account was not touched.
One of the sources said Peter Tauber, the CDU secretary-general, was later hit by a ransomware attack, in which viruses are used to lock up a computer’s data, forcing users to pay off attackers in order to regain use of their machines.
“Digitisation has overwhelmed us. Let’s not fool ourselves. Despite all the assurances about bolstering security, Germany is not really prepared for what is coming,” said Dirk Arendt, a German-based employee at a cyber security firm Check Point Software Technologies.
Government and party officials declined to comment on whose accounts were hit in 2015.
The BSI believes Merkel and her conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) are being particularly targeted by APT 28, a Russian group US officials have blamed for the hacking of Clinton’s emails.
The BSI said APT 28, also known as “Pawn Storm” or “Fancy Bear”, was behind the 2015 attack on Germany’s parliament as well as two attacks on the CDU last year.
Security firm Trend Micro say the group struck the think-tanks of both the CDU and the Social Democrats, junior partners in Merkel’s coalition government, in March and April.
Trend Micro said the group also targeted Macron. Russia denies involvement in the attacks, saying it never interferes in the internal political affairs of other countries.
A Kremlin spokesman said he had no idea who was behind APT 28: “We do not know who these people are and have no relation to them.”
But US and German officials say the connections are clear. The head of Germany’s BfV domestic intelligence agency, Hans-Georg Maassen, last week said Russia is orchestrating cyber attacks and influence operations to destabilise German society.
And while Germany has strengthened its defences, gaps were inevitable, he said.
“I’m reminded of Sisyphus continually rolling a boulder to the mountaintop only to be overtaken by his inevitable fate,” he said, referring to the Greek myth symbolising a futile act.
At a meeting with Merkel in Russia last week, President Vladimir Putin described allegations of Russian attacks related to the US presidential election as rumours.
But US and European officials say Moscow wants to erode confidence in Western democracies and undermine European unity.
“Putin’s short-term goal is to weaken the European consensus on sanctions against Russia,” said Hans-Peter Uhl, legal adviser for Merkel’s conservative bloc in parliament.
“The long-term objective is to divide the EU and secure the victory of Russian values in the battle against the West,” he wrote in the group’s
latest magazine. — Reuters