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Officials say there is evidence a Russian hacker group attempted to break into computer systems
BERLIN—Hackers sought to infiltrate the computer systems of several German political parties this summer, officials said Wednesday, raising fears of foreign interference in the country’s politics ahead of national elections next year.
A senior German counterespionage official informed two political parties and the lower house of parliament earlier this month that some of their email inboxes had been targeted by hackers with apparent ties to a foreign intelligence agency, according to a letter to one of the parties that was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
There was evidence a Russian hacker group known as APT28 carried out the attack, two officials familiar with the investigation said. Investigators have tied APT28 to cyberattacks last year on a French-language TV broadcaster and the German lower house of parliament, which forced the legislature to shut down its computer system for several days.
Germany’s domestic intelligence agency has said the hacking group appears to be “steered by the Russian state.”
A spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Berlin rejected the German officials’ accusations, describing them as lacking evidence and as “stupidities born in the inflamed imagination of politicians.”
“We have no information that would, even in the slightest measure, prove the involvement of Russian hackers in the described attacks,” the spokesman, Sergey Belyaev, said in an email.
Officials said the cyberattack targeted the national headquarters of the opposition Left Party; Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in a state holding a regional election in March; and several dozen members of the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag.
The attack took place on Aug. 15 and 24, officials said, when emails that looked like they came from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization arrived in politicians’ inboxes. The emails contained links to malicious websites that, if accessed, could have allowed the hackers to infiltrate the users’ computer networks.
A Bundestag spokesman and the Christian Democrats in the state of Saarland said their security mechanisms had blocked the attack and they believed no data was stolen. A spokeswoman for the Left Party said she couldn’t say for sure.
Nevertheless, the cyberattack underscored the potential for hackers to meddle with German politics at a particularly sensitive time. A populist, anti-immigrant party has gained momentum in a string of state elections amid popular discontent with Ms. Merkel’s acceptance of refugees.
The stakes will rise next year with elections in Saarland and two other states in the spring and the national election in the fall, in which Ms. Merkel might seek a fourth term.
“We’re taking this attack very seriously,” said Roland Theis, secretary-general of the Christian Democrats in Saarland. “In no way, however, are we going to let something like this intimidate us or influence or limit our actions.”
German officials see this summer’s disclosure of hacked Democratic National Committee emails in the U.S. as an example of how foreign hackers could seek to interfere with elections. U.S. officials believe the attacks were also carried out by Russian hackers.
The German government’s information security specialists have urged political parties to increase their cyberdefenses.
“Given the American events, it was important to me that the parties protect themselves from espionage,” Arne Schönbohm, president of the Federal Office for Information Security, told the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and public broadcasters NDR and WDR, which first reported on the attack.