What we know
The security authorities first noticed the attack in mid-December. It is said to have begun no later than summer 2017 – in the midst of the election campaign for the September Bundestag elections. It may well be that the attack started much earlier – the security services have not ruled out that it has been going on for a year.
According to information from German intelligence circles, the Russian hacker collective APT28 is behind the attack. Digital security experts also suspect that the Russian government is linked to the hacker group. However, it cannot be completely ruled out that other hackers or countries are also behind the attack – digital traces can also be easily falsified.
According to information from security circles, the foreign and defence ministries have been attacked.
The attack is still ongoing. On Thursday the Bundestag’s intelligence committee confirmed that the attack was still taking place. Armin Schuster, the head of the committee said that “any public discussion of the attack’s details would be a warning to the attackers that we don’t want to give.”
The security services have allowed the attack to continue in order to gather information on the hackers, according to dpa security sources.
But state officials insist it is under control.
The interior ministry's parliamentary state secretary, Ole Schroeder, told regional newspaper group RND that the attack was “under control” after “a very successful operation by the federal security authorities”.
“We succeeded, through excellent cooperation, to isolate and bring under control a hacker attack on the federal network,” he said, adding however that the security measures had “not yet been completed.”
The attackers are said to have searched for data on specific topics. Rather than steal vast quantities of data, the hackers reportedly chose their targets very carefully.
Patrick Sensburg, an MP for the Christian Democrats, said on broadcaster ZDF that it was necessary to check whether any data had been leaked. This isn’t the first time that the APT28 has been accused of hacking German state computer systems. In 2015 they allegedly hacked the Bundestag and stole a total of about 16 gigabytes of data, according to German intelligence services.
Some security experts have however said there is not definitive proof the ATP28 were behind that attack, as the software they use is available online.
Further victims? It is unclear whether other institutions connected to the federal data network, such as security authorities, are also affected by the hacker attack. If the hackers penetrated deeper into the network, the consequences for security would be unforeseeable.
There are many different ways to carry out such an attack. For example, in the cyber attack on the Bundestag, the Trojans that were ultimately used were assembled in the parliament's network from individual parts hidden in various mail attachments. But nothing has yet leaked out into the public domain on how this attack was carried out.
It is still unclear at this stage what the attack means for the government data network. After the Bundestag attack in 2015, it was the case that in a time-consuming and costly action, the entire data network had to be redesigned.