BERLIN: The German federal prosecutor’s office said Friday that it was looking into who was behind a wave of hacking attempts against lawmakers, amid growing concerns that Russia is attempting to derail the Sept. 26 election for a new government.
The prosecutor’s office’s action comes after Germany’s Foreign Ministry complained to Russia this week that several state legislators and members of the federal Parliament had been targeted by phishing emails and other attempts to obtain passwords and other personal information.
These allegations prompted the federal prosecutor to launch a preliminary investigation into a “foreign power.” The prosecutors did not name the country, but they did cite a Foreign Ministry statement, leaving no doubt that their focus was on Russia.
The prosecutors said in their statement that they had opened an investigation “in connection with the so-called Ghostwriter campaign,” a reference to a hacking campaign that German intelligence says can be traced back to the Russian state, specifically the Russian military intelligence service known as the G.R.U.
Russia was discovered to have hacked into the computer systems of the German Parliament in 2015, and three years later, it breached the German government’s main data network. Chancellor Angela Merkel protested both attacks, but her government struggled to find an appropriate response, and the issue of Russian hacking is now especially sensitive, coming just weeks before Germans vote to choose a successor to her nearly 16-year reign.
“The German government regards this unacceptable action as a threat to the security of the Federal Republic of Germany and the democratic decision-making process, as well as a serious burden on bilateral relations,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Andrea Sasse said on Wednesday. “The federal government strongly urges the Russian government to immediately cease these unlawful cyber activities.”
Ms. Merkel is not running for re-election and will step down once a new government is formed, so the election will be critical in determining Germany’s future — and shaping its relationship with Russia.
Annalena Baerbock of the Greens, who has pledged to take the toughest stance against Moscow of the three candidates most likely to succeed Ms. Merkel, has been the target of the most aggressive disinformation campaign.
The other two candidates, Armin Laschet of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats, who is currently Ms. Merkel’s vice-chancellor and finance minister, have served in three of Ms. Merkel’s four governments and are unlikely to change Berlin’s relationship with Moscow.
Ms. Merkel imposed harsh economic sanctions on Moscow following the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, despite opposition in other capitals and at home, but she has also worked hard to maintain open lines of communication with Moscow.
The two countries have significant economic ties, not least in the energy market, where they most recently collaborated on the construction of a direct natural gas pipeline, which was completed on Friday by the Russian energy company Gazprom.
U.S. intelligence agencies believe that “Ghostwriter,” a Russian programme named after a cybersecurity firm, was active in disseminating false information about the coronavirus ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, efforts that were seen as a refinement of what Russia attempted during the 2016 campaign.
Attempts to meddle in previous German election campaigns, however, have been limited, partly due to Ms. Merkel’s respect, but also because far-right and populist parties that have emerged in France and Italy have not gained traction in Germany.
Despite this, German intelligence officials are concerned that their country, Europe’s largest economy and a leader in the European Union, is vulnerable to outside forces seeking to undermine its democratic norms.
RT, Russia’s state-funded external broadcaster, operates an online-only German-language service that has for years emphasised divisive social issues such as public health precautions aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus and migration.
During a visit to Moscow last month, Ms. Merkel denied allegations that her government had pressured neighbouring Luxembourg to deny the station’s licence request, which would have allowed it to broadcast its programmes to German viewers via satellite.