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Germany gets serious about cyber threats

Janosch Delcker
Janosch Delcker
July 12, 2022

Germany wants to reform its cybersecurity apparatus to make it more resilient against cyberattacks. This is long overdue, but Berlin should also push for more international cooperation, DW's Janosch Delcker writes.

A person dressed as a hacker sitting at a laptop
Germany needs to bolster its defenses against cyberattacksImage: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto/picture alliance

On the morning of February 24, as Russian troops pushed into Ukraine, workers at German wind turbine maker Enercon noticed something was off: All of a sudden, they were unable to control thousands of their windmills remotely.

Soon after, it became clear that the outage was caused by a cyberattack. But the hackers had not attacked Enercon directly. Instead, they had infiltrated the system of the US satellite company Viasat and disabled thousands of modems across Europe — crippling the satellite connections that Enercon needed to connect to its wind turbines.

The manufacturer in Germany's rural heartland had, by all appearances, become collateral damage in an attack that, experts believe, was meant to sow chaos in Ukraine.

DW editor Janosch Delcker
Janosch Delcker is DW's chief technology correspondentImage: Privat

The incident illustrates how an invisible layer of digital infrastructure, which now connects institutions and companies around the globe, has made our societies ever more vulnerable to cyberattacks.

And it was this attack that German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser brought up when she presented Germany's new "cybersecurity agenda" on Tuesday.

"This incident shows that the historical turning point we're experiencing requires us to overhaul our strategy and spend significantly more when it comes to cybersecurity," said Faeser, of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). 

The plan details how the coalition government, made up of the SPD, the Greens and the neoliberal Free Democrats, plans to implement elements of a broader cybersecurity strategy released last year.

Measures include ramping up the powers of Germany's national Federal Cyber Security Authority (BSI), bringing the IT systems of Germany's domestic intelligence agency up to date, and setting up a center where companies providing elements of Germany's critical infrastructure can learn how to better protect their systems. Some of the measures still need to pass parliament before taking effect.

Hackers can paralyze entire communities

Reforms to Germany's cybersecurity apparatus have long been overdue. For years, experts have warned that both public institutions and private firms across Germany are falling behind when it comes to protecting themselves against hackers.

An eye-opening moment was when, a year ago, a ransomware attack paralyzed the entire administration of the rural district of Anhalt-Bitterfeld for weeks.  

"Nothing was working anymore," Sabine Griebsch, the district's chief digital officer, recalled when I met her in the spring while researching an episode of DW's Techtopia series. "You feel completely exposed."

The attack made national headlines when, for the first time in German history, authorities declared a state of emergency because of a cyberattack.

The sad truth, however, is that what happened in Anhalt-Bitterfeld could have occurred across Germany: Over the last years, public officials told me again and again that their institutions had neither the means nor the expertise to fend off cyberattacks.

That is why Faeser's plan to pool resources and expertise in one central agency, the BSI, is the right move.

To do that, Germany will have to make changes to its constitution and transfer power from its 16 state governments, which are currently in charge of fighting cyberattacks, to the federal government in Berlin. This transfer of power needs be watched closely, to make sure civil liberties and privacy standards are not eroded along the way.

Boosting international cooperation 

Germany also needs to look beyond its own borders.

Whether it is about stopping criminal groups that make billions by taking computers hostage, fighting online child sexual exploitation or countering cyber attacks launched by state actors as a political weapon, governments around the world will need to cooperate more closely if they want to be successful in their fight against cyber threats. 

A joint cyber unit that the European Union is currently setting up is a step in the right direction.

Beyond that, the European Union and its member states should also boost cooperation with other allies around the world — because, in cyberspace, no country is an island.

The attack on US satellite provider Viasat, and how it created ripple effects around the world, highlighted that.

At German manufacturer Enercon, the incident ended up causing only limited damage; the company's turbines continued to run on auto mode. But that could be different the next time attackers hit.

The threat is real: Since the incident, two more wind-energy companies based in Germany have reported being hit by cyberattacks. And this time, the attackers seemed to have targeted them directly.

DW's Janosch Delcker on Russian cyberattacks

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Janosch Delcker
Janosch Delcker Janosch Delcker is based in Berlin and covers the intersection of politics and technology.@JanoschDelcker