Is Russia Hacking Germany's Elections? Amid U.S. Investigation, Germans Fear Fake News, Moscow Meddling

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a bilateral meeting prior to a summit on Ukraine at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, October 2, 2015. Etienne Laurent/Reuters

Germany's upcoming federal elections have been shrouded in reports of hacking and so-called fake news, sparking concerns over the integrity of the nation's cybersecurity and the integrity of online information, not unlike last year's U.S. presidential race.

Like their U.S. counterparts, Germany authorities have pointed to Russia, accusing Moscow of launching digital attacks and attempting to manipulate the political narrative through disinformation in order to compromise the reelection campaign of Chancellor Angela Merkel. To counter these perceived threats, Germany has bolstered its cybersecurity practices and increased efforts to remove false content from social media websites, Politico Europe reported Tuesday.

Germany's IT commissioner Klaus Vitt told Politco Europe Tuesday that, while it was extremely difficult to identify where the cyber attacks originated, he believed that a number had come from Russia or China. The vulnerability of Berlin's cybersecurity was exposed in May 2015 when hackers managed to shut down the entire parliament's computer system via what was suspected to be a fraudulent email from an individual or group masquerading as a U.N. body. Intelligence officials later told lawmakers they had traced the attack to Russian hackers with possible ties to the Kremlin and that the group had access to the entire confidential network for up to three weeks.

A year later, Germany revealed a new cybersecurity strategy that included consolidation of resources and expanding the role of its Cyber Defense Center, which has been tasked with monitoring and countering such electronic offenses. However, some politicians, such as Green Party Deputy Chairman Konstantin von Notz, have pushed back against what they consider to be the overbearing surveillance of Germany's intelligence services over its legislators.

 

German lawmakers have also moved to combat the proliferation of fake news, proposing last week to establish a law penalizing social media sites for carrying potentially harmful, fake content. Germany reportedly wants the deletion of 70 percent of content considered illegal or inappropriate within 24 hours of posting, according to The New York Times. Facebook announced the hiring of 700 new staff in Berlin to increase its capacity for content review, according to CNET.

Both Germany and the U.S. have accused of Russia of using electronic warfare to manipulate information in their respective nations. In the weeks leading up to the 2016 presidential election in the U.S., WikiLeaks released private emails containing sensitive information from Democratic Party staffers, which supporters of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton argued hurt her electoral chances and favored now President Donald Trump. Former President Barack Obama, along with the U.S. intelligence community, accused the Kremlin of having a direct hand in sponsoring the hacks, something Russia has explicitly denied.

Multiple probes, including one confirmed Monday by FBI Director James Comey, have opened in an attempt to expose alleged ties between Moscow and Trump. In Germany, authorities have suspected Moscow of trying to disparage centrist Merkel of the Christian Democratic Union in favor of populist, right-wing parties.