Ger­many braced for Rus­sian cy­ber-at­tack as elec­tion looms

The Australian - - WORLD - BOJAN PANCEVSKI BER­LIN

Every evening, Ger­man news­cast­ers com­pete to de­ride this Sun­day’s gen­eral elec­tion as the most bor­ing yet. But be­hind the scenes in the glass-and-con­crete cube of the fed­eral chan­cellery, An­gela Merkel’s aides heave a sigh of re­lief that an­other day has passed with­out Rus­sia launch­ing a cy­ber-at­tack on the vote.

A vast amount of data was stolen from the Ger­man par­lia­ment in 2015 by a hacker group associated with the Krem­lin’s in­tel­li­gence ser­vices and which was also linked to in­ter­fer­ence in the US elec­tion and the cy­ber-as­sault on French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron. Ger­man of­fi­cials fear the stolen data, which ex­ceeds 16 gi­ga­bytes and con­tains email de­tails of MPs in­clud­ing Merkel, could be leaked to one of Rus­sia’s pro­pa­ganda plat­forms.

The tor­pid­ity of the elec­tion cam­paign is be­cause the re­sult is seen as a fore­gone con­clu­sion: Merkel is al­most cer­tain to win a fourth term and the only ques­tion is who will be­come her ju­nior coali­tion part­ner.

Be­neath the sur­face, how­ever, un­prece­dented mea­sures have been taken to se­cure the poll from Rus­sian med­dling: Di­eter Sar­re­i­ther, the of­fi­cial who over­sees the elec­tion, has re­placed soft­ware on elec­toral com­mis­sion com­put­ers and in­tro­duced pro­ce­dures in­volv­ing “ana­log” back­ups — com­mu­ni­ca­tion by hand­writ­ing and voice.

Sar­re­i­ther, whose of­fice han­dles data in a closed network with­out a link to the in­ter­net, will mon­i­tor the me­dia and so­cial net­works for any at­tempts at “ma­nip­u­la­tion”.

The in­te­rior min­istry has set up a task­force to pro­tect the elec­tion process. The US Army, whose Euro­pean HQ is in Ger­many, is pro­vid­ing cy­ber-war­fare sup­port. Nearly 50 per cent of Amer­ica’s in­tel­li­gence as­sets here are fo­cused on Rus­sian ac­tiv­i­ties, ac­cord­ing to sources.

“There is great ten­sion. The hack of the Bun­destag was clearly at­trib­uted to Rus­sian en­ti­ties ... but there has not been a great leak­ing ac­tion yet. Every evening we say, ‘Phew, it did not hap­pen today’,” a Merkel aide said.

The of­fi­cial said the Chan­cel­lor “does not use email” and han­dles per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tions via text from a se­cure phone. The Rus­sians could there­fore not man­age to do “some­thing like they did to Hil­lary Clin­ton”, whose emails were hacked and leaked.

Con­cern re­mains, said the of­fi­cial, that the Rus­sians could “take in­for­ma­tion out of con­text” and mix it with “forg­eries” as part of a cam­paign against the Chan­cel­lor that al­ready in­cludes fake news and neg­a­tive me­dia cov­er­age of is­sues such as mi­gra­tion.

“Rus­sian med­dling is ev­i­dent. It’s un­clear whether it’s al­ways di­rected from the Krem­lin, or whether there are also pri­vate ac­tors ... it’s not al­ways easy to find the smok­ing gun but this is part of Moscow’s for­eign pol­icy,” the of­fi­cial said.

The Ger­man gov­ern­ment is un­der­stood to have sent the Krem­lin “clear warn­ings” against try­ing to repli­cate what hap­pened in the US and France. The lat­est was de­liv­ered by Hans-Ge­org Maassen, the head of BfV, the coun­try’s equiv­a­lent of MI5.

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin was re­port­edly even warned that Merkel could kill Nord Stream 2, the con­tro­ver­sial pipe­line project that is set to chan­nel Rus­sian gas to Ger­many.

Last year a fake news cam­paign spread by Rus­sian state tele­vi­sion, and echoed by For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Lavrov, wrongly re­ported that an eth­nic Rus­sian teenager liv­ing in Ber­lin had been gan­graped by refugees.

Af­ter the in­ci­dent, Merkel com­mis­sioned the Ger­man se­cret ser­vices to in­ves­ti­gate Rus­sian ac­tiv­i­ties in the coun­try. The re­sult is the so-called Sput­nik re­port, an ex­haus­tive doc­u­ment seen only by a small cadre of top of­fi­cials. A 70page sum­mary was dis­sem­i­nated more broadly but not pub­lished.

Ac­cord­ing to peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the doc­u­ment, it iden­ti­fies RT tele­vi­sion and Sput­nik — both Rus­sian state me­dia with Ger­man-lan­guage ser­vices — as well as the Wik­iLeaks whistle­blower web­site, as tools of the Krem­lin’s hy­brid war­fare. Ivan Ro­di­onov, the ed­i­tor of RT’s Ger­man service, de­clined to be in­ter­viewed.

The re­port also de­tails how the Krem­lin is try­ing to turn the es­ti­mated one mil­lion Ger­mans who orig­i­nate from the for­mer Soviet Union into a fifth col­umn; and it de­scribes how a dense network of Rus­sian-linked think tanks, jour­nal­ists and politi­cians works to ad­vance Moscow’s in­ter­ests in Ger­many.

Ger­hard Schroder, the pop­u­lar for­mer So­cial Demo­cratic chan­cel­lor, is a friend of Putin and so­cialises with for­mer of­fi­cers of the East Ger­man Stasi se­cret service. He was re­cently ap­pointed to the board of Ros­neft, Rus­sia’s big­gest oil com­pany, which is con­trolled by the Krem­lin.

While Schroder’s So­cial Democrats, Merkel’s cur­rent coali­tion part­ners, con­duct a more cau­tious Krem­lin-friendly pol­icy, the rad­i­cal Left Party and the far-right Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many are en­tirely sup­port­ive of Putin. AfD co-leader Alexan­der Gauland told a rally last week that Ger­many needed Rus­sia “as a Chris­tian bul­wark against an Is­lamic in­va­sion”.

Pro­fes­sor Si­mon Hegelich, of the Tech­ni­cal Univer­sity in Mu­nich, an ex­pert on cy­ber-pro­pa­ganda, has found links be­tween Rus­sian me­dia and far-right groups in Ger­many — as well as the alt-right movement in Amer­ica. Merkel in­vited Hegelich to brief top Chris­tian Democrats on how Rus­sian-linked groups set up on­line data­bases of pro­pa­ganda, in­clud­ing vi­ral memes pre­sent­ing the Chan­cel­lor in un­favourable light. Ac­cord­ing to Hegelich, an at­tack aimed at weak­en­ing Merkel would be likely hap­pen “shortly be­fore” Sun­day. “But the long-term goal is more dan­ger­ous. They want to erode trust in main­stream politi­cians and our demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions.”

NATO of­fi­cials sus­pect the num­ber of troops who will be de­ployed in the war game be­gun last week by Rus­sia and Be­larus will ex­ceed 100,000. Gen­eral Ben Hodges, com­man­der of US forces in Europe, said Rus­sia could use it to station troops and hard­ware per­ma­nently in Be­larus, close to the NATO bor­der.

AFP

Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel with Volk­swa­gen ex­ec­u­tives at the open­ing of the Frank­furt Mo­tor Show at the week­end

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