Private emails, contacts, copies of identity cards, and other personal information belonging to hundreds of German politicians — including Chancellor Angela Merkel — were recently stolen and published on Twitter through the course of December.
The cause of the huge breach is still being investigated. But some media outlets, including Reuters, quoted Germany’s Interior Minister Horst Seehofer as saying the data appears to have been illegally obtained by someone using stolen login information for cloud services, email accounts, and social media accounts belonging to the victims.
There is no evidence that the German government’s IT systems or networks were compromised, Seehofer said. German investigators are trying to figure out if the breach was the result of a deliberate leak by someone with access to the data or came from a cyberattack, according to Reuters, quoting an unnamed source.
The data that was leaked via Twitter last month included figures from every major political party in Germany except Alternative for Germany (AfD), a far-right-wing party, the BBC reported. The leaked information included Merkel’s email address and several emails that she sent and received. Other victims included member of Germany’s national parliament, MPs from state parliaments, and a handful of journalists and TV personalities.
The victim profile has led to speculation that some German right-wing groups may have been behind the leak. There is also some suspicion that a Russian advanced threat group, working on behalf of the government, may have been involved, the BBC said.
CrowdStrike, a security vendor that tracks multiple Russian threat groups, says the data currently available suggests the Twitter accounts that were used to post the data were likely managed by the same group of individuals.
“An analysis of the Twitter follower network used to leak the data indicates that the leak may have a political angle,” says Adam Meyers, CrowdStrike’s vice president of intelligence. “The motivation behind the leaks remains unclear. With the analysis presently available, CrowdStrike Intelligence cannot rule out an information operation.”
On Friday, the Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information noted that the office had asked Twitter to remove access to links pointing to the stolen data but has not heard back from the company. The Twitter account that was used to publish the data has already been shut down. The effort now is try and block links pointing to other platforms where the actual data is located, the Commissioner said in a statement.
“The amount of data published is immense,” the Commissioner’s office noted. Even though the information that has been leaked has no public safety implication, the potential damage to the affected individuals is significant, it said.
Dave Weinstein, vice president of threat research at Claroty, says that based on the range of information leaked, the breach appears to result from numerous types of account compromises, including email as well as social and financial accounts.
The hackers could have used numerous tactics to compromises these accounts, including spearphising and other forms of social engineering. “It’s also possible that these accounts were protected by weak passwords and little to no other authentication controls, which would have made it easier for the attackers to gain access without detection.”
Given the victim profile the motivations are very likely political and ideological in nature, Weinstein says. “The absence of right-wing victims suggests that the perpetrator might be a right-wing activity, but it is hardly a conclusive indicator at this point.”
The nature of the German data compromise has evoked some comparisons to the 2016 attacks on the Democratic Party networks in the US and the misinformation campaign in the run-up to the presidential election.
“There is a history of Russian state sponsored interference and cyberattacks into western democracies, particularly those aligned with NATO,” says Matt Walmsley, EMEA director at Vectra.
Though there’s no evidence to support any direct attribution yet, if Russia was the attack, it would not be surprising if threat actors like the Sofacy group (aka Fancy Bear/APT28) were involved. In the past, the group has been linked to attacks on the German parliament, he notes. “Erosion of confidence in the government could benefit nation states wishing to promote political instability in Germany,” Walmsley says.
Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year … View Full Bio