The government is hunting for the hacker or hackers who stole massive amounts of personal information from political leaders and celebrities — and the German media is, of course, following every step.
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer met with the heads of the data security and federal criminal police offices on Monday, but there was no press briefing afterward. All a ministry spokesman told reporters was that a 19-year-old witness had been questioned and that “significant progress” was being made in the investigation.
For journalists, the case has two aspects. While media outlets report on the investigation, they also have to decide whether any of the dumped data is itself newsworthy.
Germany’s most widely read newspaper, the tabloid Bild, says that while it won’t publish personal information like private social-media chat messages, mobile telephone numbers and credit card details, it will evaluate the data and reserves the right to report on “prosecutable acts, illegal agreements or corruption.”
News weekly Der Spiegel is adopting much the same approach, saying that it will cover the story “extensively” but refrain from publishing personal data for its own sake
But is it legitimate to pass along any information stolen from prominent figures, ranging from Chancellor Angela Merkel to party leaders to some of Germany’s most popular entertainers?
Serious crimes versus mere socks
It has become common in recent years for journalists to use information illegally leaked via whistleblower platforms like Wikileaks. And the head of the German Association of Journalists (DJV), Frank Überall, says that it may be appropriate for reporters to use the stolen data, which was published over the course of December on Twitter in the form of a virtual advent calendar.
“If something is out there publicly on the market, it’s legitimate to investigate it and to confront a public person with it,” Überall told Deutsche Welle. “It’s a problematic source, but it is a source.”
Überall draws a distinction between the legitimate case of investigating a public figure whose data indicates that he or she may have committed a crime and the illegitimate one of a broadcaster passing on information about “who ordered what brand of socks when on the internet.”
He also questions whether it’s right for journalists to fish around in what is by all accounts a massive cache of data in hopes of finding something incriminating. “Without a concrete reason for suspicion, I’d consider it ethically dubious to collect private data or just start searching,” Überall said.
‘Material I’d have rejected’
When news of the hacked and leaked data broke on January 4, Deutsche Welle treated the information with great care. Pictures of the Twitter account used in the hack were not published while the account was still active in an effort not to further disseminate stolen personal information.
DW reporters inspected the data on the Twitter account, but the information has not been saved and is not being combed through.
The case raises the question of whether it’s legitimate to use leaked data on whistleblower sites, if the current hack is considered an improper source. Überall sees a crucial difference.
“In earlier cases, the data was institutional, and that doesn’t seem to be true here,” Überall said. “This is very personal data. It’s material I’d tend to reject if it were offered to me.”
A central issue of democracy
And indeed the quality of the data may be the factor that most mitigates the damage done to the victims. When the first major report on the leak appeared, Social Democratic parliamentary deputy Florian Post told dpa news agency that at least one piece of data concerning him was a forgery. And many of the details, such as telephone numbers, are reportedly obsolete.
“We need to remind ourselves that this is illegally obtained data,” Überall said. “That means the first step in any research is to check whether it’s even authentic.”
But whether all of the information published is true or not, the scenario of hundreds of politicians being spied upon is a major embarrassment for the German government, which has been subject to repeated hacks in recent years and has been accused of lax data security. The opposition has been very critical of the Interior Ministry’s response thus far.
“Given all the confusion and unclear information in the past few days, you have to ask whether the interior minister realizes that IT security is one of the central issues for our democracy,” Green Party parliamentary leader Anton Hofreiter told dpa.
Seehofer is set to hold a press conference on Tuesday together with the head of the federal criminal police office, Holger Münch, and the head of the office for IT security, Arne Schönbohm.
The leaks will also be the subject of a closed-door parliamentary interior affairs committee hearing on Thursday.