BERLIN — In May 2015, a message popped up on every desktop in the German parliament: the computer system was about to shut down. Moments later, screen after screen around the Bundestag turned dark, affecting thousands of lawmakers, officials and staffers.
While the outage was brief, it was enough to rattle nerves — especially among those who had heard a rumor that, two weeks earlier, hackers had gained entry to the computer system by sending an email seemingly from the United Nations. Once a recipient clicked on a link in the email, however, it opened the door for malware to enter the parliament’s computer system.
A Bundestag committee on the hack was later informed that the intruders — possibly a team of Russian hackers, known variously as APT28, Sofacy and Fancy Bear, with suspected links to the Kremlin — had roamed around freely in the system for three weeks, spying on communication between lawmakers and their staff, and eventually absconding with a large trove of information.
In the aftermath, the parliament held several emergency meetings and brought in government cyber specialists to analyze the attack. Eventually, the network and its security system were rebuilt from scratch, according to Klaus Vitt, Germany’s highest ranking government official in charge of information technology.
But by then, the proverbial horse had bolted
To this day, it is not clear what the hackers stole, though it is likely to include confidential emails and documents regarding the day-to-day business of parliament as well as more mundane exchanges between the more than 5,000 people who work in the Bundestag and across the country in various constituencies.
While the hack could be a case of old-fashioned espionage conducted with modern means — in part because of its similarity to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee in the United States, which the same Russian group reportedly pulled off a few months later — some German officials believe that the stolen information is more likely to be used as a weapon, making it a ticking bomb under the German elections in September.
“The danger is real,” said Vitt, who reports directly to Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière.