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UKRAINE

EXPLAINED: How Germany is preparing to ward off future cyberattacks

Following the invasion of Ukraine, the German government is having to reckon with the dark side of digitalisation: the potential for cyberattacks. Here's what's you need to know.

Cyberattacks
A hacker carries out a cyberattack. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Helmut Fohringer

What’s going on? 

With relations between Russia and the West arguably at their worst since the Cold War, fears are rising that Germany could soon become the victim of high-scale cyberattacks. 

Such attacks have been known to target elements of critical infrastructure like the energy or water supply, or even attempt to shut down systems in hospitals. In other cases, cybercriminals attempt to interfere with financial markets or pull sensitive data from government departments and agencies. 

“There is currently an increased danger of cyber attacks in Germany in the form of cyber espionage and cyber sabotage,” Baden-Württemberg’s interior minister Thomas Strobl told DPA. “We must increasingly expect wars to be waged in cyberspace and to have an impact on our cyber security.”

One key concern is that, in many cases, Germany is restricted to just one or two suppliers of energy or water per region, which analysts believe is not enough to protect the supply in the event of a cyberattack. 

Another issue is the fact that Germany is currently undergoing a period of relatively rapid digitalisation, leaving more of its infrastructure exposed to such attacks.

“With growing digitalisation, the potential attack surface is also growing, we are also becoming more vulnerable,” said Strobl, adding that computer centres at universities, commercial enterprises and individual citizens are becoming targets. 

READ ALSO: Majority of Germans worried about ‘major war in Europe’

Have there been any recent cyberattacks in Germany?

In today’s highly digitalised landscape, cyberattacks are unfortunately a fact of life and something that most businesses and governments have had to learn to live with. 

However, not all cyberattacks cause an equal amount of disruption or damage, so it’s partially a question of scale.

In February, a cyberattack on an oil company called Oiltanking and Mabanaft affected numerous petrol stations across northern Germany, as well as in the Netherlands and Belgium.

The so-called ‘ransomware’ attack – in which hackers disable systems and then offer to put them back online in return for a ransom – affected the firm’s logistics and loading systems, making it hard for the company to operate as normal. 

However, there was – and still is – no evidence that this was carried out by Russia.

The real fear is that something like the notorious SolarWinds attack in the United States occurs. In 2020, hackers that were believed to be working for Russia managed to silently slip into the network of a piece of management software known as FireEye, and through this single weak point, managed to pull huge swathes of data from companies using that software. 

“In this case, it meant that Russian intelligence had potential access to as many as 18,000 SolarWinds customers,” Wired reporter Lily Hay Newman wrote of the fallout.

“They ultimately broke into fewer than 100 choice networks – including those of Fortune 500 companies like Microsoft and the US Justice Department, State Department, and NASA.”

Attacks like these could be devastating in Europe and potentially used to try and mine state secrets. At present, however, there’s no sign that similar attacks have been attempted in Germany.

READ ALSO: How prepared is Germany in the event of a military attack?

Is the government trying to mitigate these risks?

As Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) made clear in a recent speech, a strengthening of cyber capabilities is definitely on the agenda.

Speaking in his emergency address to the Bundestag on Sunday, Scholz revealed plans to strengthen the country against potential cyberattacks and explained that “not all attacks are made against the army”. 

“That is why we need strong cooperation in research and development,” he said. “That is why we will strengthen our resilience – technically and socially – for example against cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns; against attacks on our critical infrastructure and communication channels.”

Olaf Scholz Bundeswehr

Chancellor Olaf Scholz meets the commanders of the German military. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/EPA Pool | Clemens Bilan

Federal Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD) has also pledged to expand cyber defence in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“We have to think more about countermeasures against cyber attacks,” Faeser told Spiegel on Friday. “It’s a matter of targeted measures to identify perpetrators and crime structures, also abroad, to uncover their concealment measures, behind which they believe they are safe, and to prevent attacks from being carried out”.

What are businesses doing to prepare? 

The Federal Association for the Protection of Critical Infrastructure (BSKI) believes the threat of cyberattacks is increasingly serious and that businesses should make arrangements for this eventuality.

In concrete terms, the association recommends all companies have IT specialists to hand to get services back up and running as well as emergency procedures and backups for the event of a cyberattack.

BSKI member NovaStor has also set up a free hotline where companies can get free advice on cybersecurity measures and assess whether their backups are sufficient. 

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POLICE

EXPLAINED: What you need to know about gun laws in Germany

Germany is known for having some of the world’s strictest gun laws, but shooting incidents continue to cause concern.

EXPLAINED: What you need to know about gun laws in Germany

Is it difficult to get a gun in Germany?

To get a gun in Germany you firstly have to obtain a firearms ownership license (Waffenbesitzkarte) – and you may need a different one for each weapon you buy – or a license to carry (Waffenschein).

Applicants for a license must be at least 18-years-old and undergo what’s called a reliability check. This includes checking for criminal records, whether the person is an alcohol or drug addict, whether they have a mental illness or any other attributes that might make them owning a gun a potential concern for authorities.

They also have to pass a “specialised knowledge test” on guns and people younger than 25 applying for their first license must go through a psychiatric evaluation.

Crucially, applicants must also prove a specific and approved “need“ for the weapon, which is mainly limited to use by hunters, competitive marksmen, collectors and security workers – not for self-defence.

Once you have a license, you’re also limited in the number of and kinds of guns you may own, depending on what kind of license you have: Fully automatic weapons are banned for everyone, while semiautomatic firearms are banned for anything other than hunting or competitive shooting.

A revolver lies on an application for the issuance of a firearms license. Photo: picture alliance / Carsten Rehder/dpa | Carsten Rehder

How many legal guns are there in Germany? 

According to the latest figures from the Federal Ministry of the Interior, as of May 31st, 2022, there were 5.018,963 registered guns in Germany, and 946,546 gun owners entered in the National Weapons Register (NWR).

Where are the most guns in Germany?

Most legal guns are found in rural areas and are used in hunting or shooting sports. Guns are also more widespread in the western States than in the states that make up the former East Germany, where private gun ownership was extremely limited. 

READ ALSO: German prosecutors say poaching led to double police murder

What about undocumented guns in Germany?

One problem in Germany is so-called ‘old’ weapons. It’s impossible to estimate how many weapons from the two world wars are still in circulation and such antiques have appeared in a number of high-profile incidents in the last few years.

The pistol hidden in a Vienna airport by Bundeswehr officer Franco A was a Unique pistol from 1917 and the 2007 murder of a police officer in Heilbronn involved a Wehrmacht pistol. 

In 2009, around 200,000 weapons were returned in a gun amnesty, but it is still unclear how many illegal weapons are still out there.

Does Germany have a gun violence problem?

Gun crime is relatively rare in Germany, which has some of the strictest gun laws in Europe and, according to the latest figures from the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), gun-related crimes in Germany are decreasing.

In 2021, there were 9.8 percent fewer crimes committed with a firearm than the previous year, while the number of cases recorded by the police in which a firearm was used to threaten fell by 11.2 percent. Shots were fired in 4,074 of the total number of recorded cases, down 8.5 percent from 2021.

An armored weapons cabinet filled with long guns. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Friso Gentsch

Despite this, there have been several mass shootings within the past two decades, which have had a big impact on public consciousness and on gun control policy. 

Between 2002 and 2009 there were three major incidents of young men carrying out shootings at their former high schools and, in 2020, a racially motivated gunman shot and killed 11 people and injured numerous others in an attack on two shisha bars in Hanau. The perpetrator was allowed to legally possess firearms, although he had previously sent letters with right-wing extremist content to authorities.

Recently there were also shootings at Heidelberg University in southwestern Germany and at a supermarket in Schwalmstadt in Hesse.

Are German gun laws about to change?

The German parliament reacted to the mass shooting incidents in the early 2000s by tightening the gun laws, and, in the wake of the Hanau attack, a new amendment is in the works, which aims to shift focus towards monitoring gun owners with extremist, right-wing views.

READ ALSO: Germany marks a year since deadly racist shooting in Hanau

In December 2021, Federal Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD) announced her intention to further tighten gun laws, as part of a plan to tackle right-wing extremism.

The authorities in charge of the protection of the constitution have been warning for some time that neo-Nazis are deliberately joining shooting clubs to obtain guns and the Federal Ministry of the Interior reports that 1.500 suspected right-wing extremists among legal gun owners.

Campaigners say more needs to be done to stop gun crime. 

Dagmar Ellerbrock, a historian and expert on weapons history at the Technical University of Dresden said: “It is high time that we try to at least make it more difficult for these political groups to find their way through the shooting associations.”

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