Why Germany’s worst data leak isn’t such a scandal

By Leonid Bershidsky / BLOOMBERG

Throughout December, a hacker calling himself or herself G0d (or a group of people hiding behind the nickname) organised what appears to be the biggest ever data leak on German politicians, media personalities and YouTube stars.

It was a very German affair; though the leak could still generate some scandals, Germany has so far proved to be a hacker’s worst nightmare: All that work digging and revealing an information trove and all it has received so far is a shrug.

Using several Twitter accounts (all suspended now), G0d (sic) devised an “Advent calendar” of leaks. On each day of Advent, a “door” leading to a cache of stolen data was released.

G0d took great care to make it difficult to take down the files, creating numerous mirror locations and using servers outside Germany, but the hacker(s) apparently had little understanding of how to draw attention to the postings.

Only last week, with Advent long since over, did the hacker(s) manage to make the splash they wanted by hacking a much-followed YouTuber’s Twitter account and posting some links there.

That got the leak on national news and on the front pages of newspapers (which millions of Germans still read in printed form).

Journalists soon noticed that politicians from all the parliamentary parties except one — the nationalist, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany — were hacked, and that public personalities who have spoken up in favour of accepting refugees or against the far right, such as actor Til Schweiger and comedian Jan Boehmermann, appeared to be disproportionately affected.

It must have taken G0d months of work to get all the data on thousands of people. The private phone numbers, physical and email addresses, bank statements, insurance policies, and records of chats with family members didn’t come from one major network breach, but were likely vacuumed up from social media and email accounts hacked one by one with common social engineering techniques like phishing.

All the big names, including Chancellor Angela Merkel (picture) and government ministers, are in G0d’s database with at least some protected, personal information.

And yet, for all the effort expended, so far no major scandals have erupted.

One could ascribe this to the reluctance of German professional media to publish, or act on, stolen data: Unlike in English-speaking countries, privacy is a primary concern in Germany, ahead of the freedom of speech.

But, thanks to the hacker’s efforts, some of the files are still up and downloadable; anyone can find a mirror that’s still working and take a look at the data.

I could find little of note, though my search wasn’t exhaustive; a couple of lawmakers were apparently caught downloading porn, and others appeared to be cheating on their partners, but these weren’t major figures.

No corrupt dealings or instances of egregious cynicism and hypocrisy spring at the reader, and none have been reported.

In this, the G0d leak resembles the 2015 hack of the German Parliament, pinned by researchers and the German government’s cyber security experts on a Russian group of malicious actors; nothing to embarrass the country’s leaders and political class was found.

One cannot help but compare the German leak with those that followed the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton election campaign in the US in 2016.

Even if the US leaks didn’t reveal anything that could be prosecuted, there was plenty of evidence of political skulduggery and pay-to-play practices.

Not in Germany. At best, one can use the leaked data to find some vain Wikipedia edits.

Surprises could still be forthcoming from G0d, whom German law enforcement agencies are trying to catch.

Journalists combing through the files also could unexpectedly hit pay dirt. It’s more likely, however, that the personal data released by the hacker or hackers are meant primarily for use by trolls — to send offensive messages and threats, to harass the families of public personalities and to create a sense of uncertainty among the German elite.

There are plenty of individuals on the anonymous message board community 4Chan who are happy to do a bit of trolling.

Helge Lindh, a Social Democratic lawmaker from Wuppertal, whose data were published by G0d, had been hacked before — and then his family received in the mail copies of the Quran, fake dog excrement and a urine testing kit.

In the wake of the leaks, German newspapers have called for more attention to data protection and reproached the responsible agencies for slowness to react to the theft and publication of well-known people’s personal data.

Whether private hackers, possibly of a far-right persuasion, or foreign spy services were behind it, public institutions should build better walls and probably will in the wake of the G0d attacks.

Some politicians will be more careful with their data, though that is admittedly difficult these days. But others aren’t planning to hunker down, no matter what follows the leak.

“Generally, I will just keep doing what I’ve done before,” Lindh, who is strongly pro-refugee, told an interviewer.

“I won’t shut myself off, that would send the wrong signal.”

In the end, all politicians live in a glass house these days. Trolls and hackers may be impossible to eradicate, but the relative flop produced by the G0d hackers’ perverse Advent calendar was proof that the best defence for politicians is having little to hide.


This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its
owners.