German spy chief says Russian hackers could disrupt elections

Cyber-attacks aim to delegitimise democratic process and elicit political uncertainty, says Bruno Kahl

The head of Germany’s foreign intelligence service has warned that next year’s general election could be targeted by Russian hackers intent on spreading misinformation and undermining the democratic process.

Bruno Kahl, president of the Bundesnachrichtendienst, said Russia may have been behind attempts during the US presidential campaign to interfere with the vote.

“We have evidence that cyber-attacks are taking place that have no purpose other than to elicit political uncertainty,” he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung in his first interview since he was appointed five months ago.

“The perpetrators are interested in delegitimising the democratic process as such, regardless of who that ends up helping. We have indications that [the attacks] come from the Russian region.

“Being able to attribute it to a state agent is technically difficult but there is some evidence that this is at least tolerated or desired by the state.”

Kahl said the suspicion was that a large proportion of attacks were being carried out simply to demonstrate technical prowess. “The traces that are left behind in the internet create an impression of someone wanting to demonstrate what they are capable of,” he said.

Kahl joins a range of leading voices in Germany who have recently expressed their concerns over Russian interference, particularly through the spread of fake news stories.

Hans-Georg Maaßen, president of the domestic BfV intelligence agency, said in an interview that cyberspace had become “a place of hybrid warfare” in which Russia was a key player. “More recently, we see the willingness of Russian intelligence to carry out sabotage,” he said.

Maaßen said Russian secret services had been carrying out attacks on computer systems in Germany which, as far as his agency had been able to ascertain, were “aimed at comprehensive strategic data gathering”.

Only when people were confronted with the fact the information they were receiving was untrue would “the toxic lies lose their effectiveness”, he said.

Deutsche Telekom logo
Recent Deutsche Telekom outages are believed to be part of a worldwide attempt to hijack routing devices. Photograph: Reuters

Hackers were said to have been behind attacks on Deutsche Telekom on Sunday and Monday that disabled internet and phone access for almost a million customers in Germany. The company said the security breach was part of a worldwide attack on routers. Security experts said the hackers may have been Russian but they had no proof.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said on Tuesday she did not know who was responsible for the strike but “such cyber-attacks, or hybrid conflicts as they are known in Russian doctrine, are now part of daily life and we must learn to cope with them.

“We have to inform people, and express our political convictions clearly,” she said, calling on the population to not allow themselves to be irritated by such rogue operations. “You just have to know that there’s such a thing and learn to live with it,” she said.

Arne Schönbohm, president of the Federal Office for Information Security and known as Germany’s ‘“cyber sheriff”, called the Deutsche Telekom attacks worrying: “It shows to what extent cyber-attacks can affect every citizen. We need to get used to the idea that in future computer attacks, both comparable and far worse, will increasingly take place.”

In 2015, an attack on internet in the German parliament was blamed on Russian hackers by German intelligence. Russian officials have strenuously denied the accusations.

Germany faces a heated election campaign next year, largely due to the pressure Merkel is under over her liberal refugee policy, along with the rise of rightwing populists Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which is on track to enter the Bundestag for the first time.

Public disenchantment towards Merkel – under fire also for her critical stance towards Russia over its annexation of the Crimea – is ripe for exploitation by her political opponents, several of whom, including the AfD, have reached out to the Kremlin and vice versa.

Merkel has also warned that populists and social media platforms spreading propaganda were in danger of causing unprecedented damage to democracy.

Speaking to the Bundestag last week, she said: “Today we have fake sites, bots, trolls – things that regenerate themselves, reinforcing opinions with certain algorithms, and we must learn how to deal with them.”

A report published this month by the Atlantic Council on Russian Influence on France, Germany and the UK, pointed to an extensive Russian “disinformation campaign” being carried out in Germany, which it said had “opened opportunities for the Kremlin to influence German politics and the public debate”.

The Pegida anti-Islam movement has repeatedly hammered home the message at its rallies that the influence of President Vladimir Putin’s Russia in Germany is a welcome alternative to the imperial designs of the US and Brussels.


Kate Connolly in Berlin

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Russia-aligned hackers running anti-Nato fake news campaign – report
‘Ghostwriter’ campaign said to involve replacing true stories with false ones on news sites in Poland and Lithuania

Dan Sabbagh Defence and security editor

30, Jul, 2020 @3:32 PM

Article image
Russian hackers targeted UK media and telecoms firms, confirms spy chief
Head of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre says Russian is ‘seeking to undermine the international system’

Alex Hern

15, Nov, 2017 @11:23 AM

Article image
EU to run war games to prepare for Russian and Chinese cyber-attacks
Ministers to be put in fictional scenarios after series of hacking incidents

Daniel Boffey in Helsinki

27, Jun, 2019 @12:48 PM

Article image
Nato must defend western democracy against Russian hacking, say Fallon
UK defence secretary accuses Moscow of ‘weaponising misinformation’ to disable democratic machinery

Ewen MacAskill Defence correspondent

03, Feb, 2017 @8:12 AM

Article image
Russian hackers suspected of Kremlin ties used Windows bug ‘to spy on west’
Cyber-threat intelligence firm iSight says ‘Sandworm Team’ used unknown bugs from 2009 to steal EU and Nato documents

Alec Luhn in Moscow

14, Oct, 2014 @5:41 PM

Article image
Hostile states pose 'fundamental threat' to Europe, says MI6 chief
Although Alex Younger does not name specific country, he makes clear that Russia is target of his remarks

Ewen MacAskill Defence and intelligence correspondent

08, Dec, 2016 @1:31 PM

Article image
String of own goals by Russian spies exposes a strange sloppiness
The secretive, daring GRU seems to have lost its way in the age of internet search

Andrew Roth in Moscow

05, Oct, 2018 @4:00 AM

Article image
Google warns of surge in activity by state-backed hackers
More than 50,000 alerts sent so far this year, including of an Iranian group that targeted a UK university

Dan Milmo Global technology editor

15, Oct, 2021 @12:00 PM

Article image
Russia accuses cybersecurity experts of treasonous links to CIA
Rumours swirl of connection to revelations about US election hacking, as state media says Sergei Mikhailov and Dmitry Dokuchayev ‘betrayed their oath’

Shaun Walker in Moscow

31, Jan, 2017 @11:19 PM

Article image
Obama expels 35 Russian diplomats in retaliation for US election hacking
Trump repeats wish to ‘move on’ but says he will meet intelligence officials while Putin regime considers response to White House measures

Lauren Gambino and Sabrina Siddiqui in Washington and Shaun Walker in Moscow

30, Dec, 2016 @7:47 AM