Cyber attacks, manipulation, disinformation campaigns: How secure is the 2021 federal election? An assessment.
by Svenja Koch
The 2021 federal election definitely marks the end of an era. Angela Merkel has ruled our country as chancellor since 2005 - but that will end in September. Which color combination from the party landscape will govern after the Bundestag election is still unclear. Still, one thing seems certain: Disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks will accompany the online election campaign. At least, that is the conviction of Arne Schönbohm, President of the German Federal Office for Information Security (BSI). But what is there to the fears of manipulating the Bundestag election, and how secure is the 2021 Bundestag election?
Greater threats than in the past
In an online press conference, Arne Schönbohm said that "the threats [from cyberattacks] are greater than in the past." Schönbohm immediately provided the reason for this, namely the advancing digitalization in Germany. Even though many public authorities still regard fax as a high-tech means of data transmission, more and more people use the Internet as an information medium. According to Schönbohm, online communication has also become even more important during the pandemic. Therefore, it can be assumed that manipulation or attempts to manipulate the Bundestag election, as in the American presidential election campaign, cannot be ruled out. After all, Germany, as the "economically most potent power in Europe," is certainly attractive to attackers.
A "complex threat situation" before the Bundestag election
In times of the Corona pandemic, online communication has once again gained importance. At the same time, manipulation attempts are known from the U.S. and French election campaigns. "We are dealing with a very complex threat situation," Schönbohm warns during the press conference. "Since we have seen this [the manipulation attempts] in other countries, we simply assume that this is also attractive here in Germany as the most economically potent power within Europe."
The "complex threat situation" includes technical manipulations such as deep fakes. Here, artificial intelligence is used to transfer people's faces from a video to the face of another person. In this way, any politician can effortlessly be "put in the mouth" of any statement, word for word - including all the consequences, especially on social networks. Cyber attackers could also try to take over the accounts of candidates for the Bundestag - and henceforth post articles under their names.
The Federal Election Commissioner, Georg Thiel, also expects "attacks on the integrity of the Bundestag election" in the online election campaign. Thiel and his team are working closely with the BSI to simulate potential scenarios for cyberattacks around the 2021 federal election. It has been clear since 2015 that even elections in Germany are not safe from attack. In 2015, cybercriminals broke into the servers of the Bundestag and accessed internal emails and documents of members of parliament. Even Chancellor Merkel was affected by the cyberattacks. Since this "trauma of German cyber defense," Germany has invested quite a bit in the fight against digital, external influence. Yet, no unified organization is dedicated to defending against cyber attacks.
Who is responsible for cybersecurity in Germany?
As a federally organized state, Germany has a host of authorities sent to fight cyberattacks. What is missing, however, is a central body that coordinates the individual authorities. Responsible for cybersecurity in Germany are:
The police investigate when a crime is suspected - and that includes cyberattacks. Since it is like things that in the case of crimes in the digital space, it is not clear where the perpetrator is or whether he is acting on behalf of a state, the BKA (Federal Criminal Police Office) or the BfV (Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution) take over the investigation. However, this is only the case until a local connection to the crime becomes clear. In this case, the state criminal office is responsible.
The Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) is tasked with answering fundamental questions about IT security. The BSI advises companies and organizations and is supposed to protect government networks from cyber attacks.
The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) is responsible for defending against cyberattacks on critical infrastructures such as energy or water suppliers.
The Federal Intelligence Service (BND) springs into action to defend against cyberattacks from abroad. In doing so, the BND works closely with the BSI and BfV.
- German Armed Forces
The military has also upgraded significantly in terms of cyber defense. With the Cyber and Information Space Command, the Bundeswehr has around 14,500 specialists (both soldiers and civilians) responsible for protecting IT systems. When cyberattacks are detected, the Bundeswehr relies on the Computer Emergency Response Team - a rapid reaction force.
How vulnerable is the online election campaign for the 2021 federal election?
As already mentioned, the threat situation in the online election campaign for the 2021 federal election is described as "complex." But what exactly does Arne Schönbohm mean by this? First of all, there is the possibility of Trojans causing disruptions and sabotage in the election campaign. Here, the expert sees a major risk, above all, from attacks on Microsoft Exchange servers. 65,000 of these servers are operated in Germany, 4,000 of which are not equipped with the latest security patches - an invitation for cybercriminals.
Also to be regarded as a real danger are takeovers of politicians' accounts on social networks. Not only could hackers tap into internal data and then publish it, but compromised accounts are also suitable for distributing fake news.
Then there are targeted disinformation campaigns in the online election campaign, controlled by various interest groups from Germany and abroad. Scenarios similar to the Corona "infodemie" are possible: spreading misinformation to create uncertainty. While the Corona campaign was primarily directed against scientists and government measures ("Bill Gates wants to enslave us all with chips"), a disinformation campaign before an election is particularly suitable for denigrating certain parties to manipulate the election results one's own favor. The absentee ballot, a fixed instrument in the Federal Republic since 1957, has also been the target of accusations time and again. Absentee voting is manipulated, undesired votes are not counted, some parties are pushed, other parties are "counted in the basement" - the list of accusations is long. However, Federal Election Commissioner Thiel fully debunks these accusations. "We haven't had any starting points since 1957 that elections as a whole have become more susceptible to manipulation [through absentee ballots]." There is a multi-layered security concept in place for Election Day for the 2021 federal election, Thiel said. And the Federal Election Commissioner also has some good news in store: the official final result of the election is "completely hacker-proof." This is because it is determined without digital support.
Current disinformation in the online election campaign
One way of manipulating a federal election is to spread rumors and false reports on social networks deliberately. In Germany, as already mentioned, the postal vote, in particular, is in the crosshairs of critics. Postal voting would be easy to manipulate, and falsified results could be expected in any case - that is, the unanimous opinion of the critical voices. The Federal Constitutional Court is also aware of these concerns - it has received and examined complaints about the absentee ballot on several occasions. The result of the court's verdict: The complaints were "not well-founded," and the absentee ballot itself was "constitutionally unobjectionable." To date, international election observers from OSZER have also been unable to find any evidence of manipulation of the Bundestag election by absentee ballots.
Another rumor circulating again in the online campaign for the 2021 federal election attempts to deny the elections any legitimacy. "Elections are of no use if members of a particular party count the ballots" - or so the claims go. However, in Germany, it is not permissible for representatives of only one party to count ballots. Instead, election workers are proposed by the parties but in a colorful mix of the entire party landscape. The principle of checks and balances ensures protection against electoral fraud. In addition, every eligible voter can volunteer to be an election worker.
And then there are the troublesome contrarians and swindlers, who have to be mentioned here for the sake of completeness. A conspiracy theory is coming back to life in the online election campaign - namely, that the virus is just a pretext for establishing a dictatorship. Alternatively, Angela Merkel is used as a dictator, George Soros, or, more generally, just "the elites." The update to this conspiracy theory in the online campaign for the 2021 federal election is now that Chancellor Merkel wants to postpone the election indefinitely - or push the virus forward to cancel the election altogether. The precursor to dictatorship is the Infection Protection Act - referred to as the Enabling Act in the campaigns of the "lateral thinkers" and intended as an allusion to National Socialism. The Aluhut faction is not interested in the fact that the Basic Law sets the deadline for the Bundestag elections and that the government cannot simply cancel or postpone election dates.
The online election campaign for the 2021 federal election is slowly picking up speed - and is probably more relevant than ever before in the history of the Federal Republic. Since the Corona pandemic, opinion-forming in social networks has become significantly more relevant - and of course, interest groups from Germany and abroad that are bothered by democratic processes know this. Even if the Internet in Germany is still "uncharted territory" for many - especially politicians - drastic, direct manipulation of the Bundestag election by cyber-attacks will not influence the election results. Although cyber defense in Germany has a federal structure and resembles a patchwork quilt in places - experts are nevertheless on hand to prevent cyber attacks as comprehensively as possible. However, a real threat in the online election campaign comes from fake news, scattered propaganda, and hacked politician accounts. Even if many of the conspiracy theories surrounding the 2021 federal election are easily recognizable as outright nonsense, they do considerable damage to democracy in general. After all, the electoral process thrives because the majority of the population has confidence in the process. If this trust is lost, there is not much left of democracy either.