CybersecurityCyber Threat Looms Large over German Election

By Janosch Delcker

Published 9 March 2021

Whether hacking attacks or disinformation campaigns, online meddling could sway public opinion and influence the outcome of the September vote, experts warn. Recent incidents suggest that the threat is real.

When Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) met online to elect a new party leadership in January, hackers carried out a series of massive attacks aimed at throwing the summit into chaos. The attacks picked up speed every time delegates were about to vote.  

According to CDU spokespeople, the assailants, operating mostly from abroad, bombarded the party’s website with internet traffic to overwhelm its server. At some point, they succeeded. The site collapsed and the livestream of the event cut out.  

In the end, the CDU managed to push the intruders out: The party’s technical staff got the website back up by blocking access from outside Germany and specific locations inside the country. Meanwhile, undeterred by the attacks, delegates elected a new party leader through a voting system hosted on a separate server — a safeguard that had been set up to fend off cyberintruders.

Yet the thwarted attack illustrates the threat of online meddling that looms over Germany’s upcoming election campaign.  

As Europe’s largest economy heads into a string of regional votes that will culminate in a federal election in September, security experts and lawmakers have warned in various interviews that digital risks are on the rise.  

The threat level remains persistently high,” said a spokeswoman for the Federal Office for Information Security (BSI), Germany’s cybersecurity authority.   

The BSI has observed a consistent increase in hacking attacks and online data breaches, she said. Both actions “could be used by potential attackers to influence the upcoming elections this year.”      

US technology giant Microsoft, which advises German political parties on how to protect their election campaigns against cyberattacks, warns that malicious actors have diversified their strategies: They increasingly use more than one cyberweapon in their attacks, making it harder to counter them.  

Such hybrid attacks are what particularly worry us and others in the tech industry,” said Jan Neutze, who leads the company’s Defending Democracy Program.   

A Threefold Menace
To better understand the cyber threat hanging over Germany’s election, it helps to break it down into three categories.  

First, there is hacking: the gaining of unauthorized access to data in a system or computer. As coronavirus restrictions will likely move campaigning from the streets to the internet, hackers could infiltrate the parties’ networks and disrupt campaign events with tactics similar to those deployed during the CDU summit.