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Has Germany's Patriot missile system been hacked?

Zulfikar AbbanyJuly 8, 2015

A little known German newspaper has reported that the Bundewehr's Patriot missile defense system was hacked. The Defense Ministry has said there's no evidence to support the article. But who is telling the truth?

Raytheon Patriot rockets
A Patriot missile system at a Turkish military base in Kahramanmaras, in southeastern TurkeyImage: Ismail Hakki/AFP/Getty Images

It is advice, you understand, just friendly advice. You write whatever you want to write. But we suggest you don't touch this story, because it's pure fiction.

Give or take a word or two, and allowing for discrepancies in the translation, that's pretty much what a spokesman at the German Defense Ministry told DW.

They also said it wasn't a direct quote. But therein lies the art of the media liaison.

They were clear - and on the record - when they said a story published by Germany's "Behörden Spiegel," alleging the German military's Patriot missile defense system on the Turkey-Syria border had been hacked, was baseless.

"This story doesn't exist," said the spokesman, who asked not to be named. "As far as the story was reported, we've found no evidence."

The spokesman said the ministry looked "intensively" into the issue and found nothing "out of our control."

Germany has deployed units using Patriot anti-missile systems to Turkey to help defend it against attack from Syria
Germany has deployed units using Patriot anti-missile systems to Turkey to help defend it against attack from SyriaImage: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

"It is extremely unlikely that people could penetrate a highly secure network [such as the military's]," he added.

Enter the editor-in-chief

When asked to respond to the Defense Ministry's denial of the article written by his paper, Uwe Proll, editor-in-chief of the "Behörden Spiegel," pointed to reports from Tuesday in another German newspaper, Die Welt, describing other incidents involving a similar US weapons system that Americans authorities were investigating .

"This suggests we have to consider the potential for [third parties interfering] in the military context," Proll said.

Other than citing reports in "Behörden Spiegel," "Die Welt" did not elaborate on any other possible hacks of German military hardware.

The ministry, in its defense, admitted that few systems can be considered 100 percent secure.

What it rejects is the specific allegation made by the "Behörden Spiegel" that in late 2014 or early 2015, the Patriot weapons systems carried out "mysterious" commands. The Bundeswehr has stationed Patriot systems since 2013 to protect NATO-partner Turkey on that country's border with Syria.

The publication cites the system's "Sensor Shooter Interoperability" (SSI) as vulnerable - SSI handles the real-time exchange of data between the command and weapon systems.

"I spoke to the ministry and the spokesman said he had asked every possible channel and that there was no [ministry] report about any abnormality," Proll said. "But our information comes from within the German armed forces sector, and the source is still active in the area."

Raketen Abwehrsystem Patriot der Bundeswehr
Germany has also loaned batteries of Patriot systems to IsraelImage: Deutsche Bundeswehr/Getty Images

"We've had the information for about three months and have spent a lot of time investigating other weapons systems too - the issue of the Patriot system crops up in only four or five lines," Proll added. "We investigated airplanes, drones and all manner of military devices that have either been hacked, or - as we hypothesize - that parts of the devices, for instance chips, may have been tampered with or manipulated before they were installed, so that an attack needn't come from outside but may already sit on the chip."

Chinese chips

When it comes to the chips, Proll's finger is pointed directly at China. But the idea finds little favor with IT security expert Sandro Gaycken.

"It's complete nonsense," Gaycken said. "First, every chip is made in China. And second, a lot of people know about the vulnerabilities in Chinese chips - it's not exclusively the Chinese who know how to attack Chinese chips. There's still a broad range of actors. In some of the NSA leaks we've heard about the NSA infiltrating chip manufacturers to implant 'back doors' on Chinese chips, so it could have been anybody."

Gaycken, a former "hacktivist" and advisor to the German government, said he has heard the incident, as described in the "Behörden Spiegel" report, did not happen. But he added that the idea is not unimaginable.

"Any military system is not 'military off-the-shelf' but 'commercial off-the-shelf' IT, so it's the same kind of IT you'd buy for a company or at a media market, and it has the same amount of flaws and difficulties," said Gaycken. "So it's accessible and hackable. The only question is how much effort the military made to protect it from foreign access."

Such information is classified, he said, adding that some systems use military cryptography and still other mechanisms are never attached to the Internet.

"But modern secret services, including Iran, know how to circumvent such simple protection mechanisms - they know how to handle crypto, they know how to handle disconnected systems, and how to design sneakernet attacks, which jump onto these systems from other factors," Gaycken said.

"After all the lying and the cheating"

If this story proves true, it wouldn't have come at a worse time. The German government is still reeling from a hack on the computer networks at the Bundestag - the hack was so deep, the whole system is being replaced.

The MEADS anti-missile system - a rival to Raytheon Patriot rockets
The MEADS anti-missile system - a rival to Raytheon Patriot rockets

"We're talking about isolated, military networks here," the ministry spokesman said. "We're not talking about the Bundestag."

But the German armed forces appear to be in a similar mode of renewal as the Bundestag after all. The Defense Ministry has decided to move away from the Raytheon-produced Patriot system and instead adopt the MEADS defense system from a consortium of US-based Lockhead Martin and the European firm MBDA.

The question now is will it help?

"Militaries don't have all the expertise in this field," said Gaycken, "and the IT market is a big problem because it wants to continue to sell, so they pretend there's no problem with their products, and there are solutions, but […] once you cut through all the lying and the cheating in this market, you've already been hacked 10 times over.

"The market is very immature, very unprofessional," Gaycken says, "and until that is clarified through research and independent entities, there's little hope that militaries will solve this problem."