A young hacker spooks the German establishment

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IN THE end, God turned out to be a 20-year-old amateur hacker living with his parents in a small western German town. Throughout December God, or “G0d”, to give him his proper Twitter handle, had leaked the phone numbers, addresses and, in some cases, private photos and credit-card details of nearly 1,000 German politicians, celebrities and journalists. For weeks no one noticed. But panic set in once the news emerged on January 3rd. Was this an expert group of cyber-anarchists hell-bent on destroying the system? Was it the handiwork of Vladimir Putin?

In fact the culprit, arrested in the town of Homberg (Ohm) on January 6th, turned out to be a determined “script kiddie” (slang for a hacker who uses code written by others), apparently acting alone. He seems to have obtained the data by guessing passwords, cracking address books and so on. Asked to explain his motivation, he told police that he was “annoyed” by politicians. (Apart from those of the far-right Alternative for Germany, whom he spared.)

Germany is still a laggard in cybersecurity, says Matthias Schulze at the German Institute for International and Security Policy (SWP), a think-tank. So it must often turn abroad for help. A more serious attack, probably steered from Moscow, on the Bundestag’s servers in 2015 was cleared up with British help; this time German officials reportedly turned to American experts. Yet it has been catching up. Germany’s cybersecurity strategy has been revised, funds are flowing, agencies are to be beefed up and the army is building up cyber-offensive capabilities. A planned cybersecurity bill will now be brought forward to the first half of 2019.

Some politicians urged a more muscular response to the December attacks. Yet the true lessons are more mundane. First, even relatively unskilled amateurs working alone can cause serious disruption. There was little of consequence in the leaked material but, in the wrong hands, phone numbers and addresses can be used for mischief. Second, the multitude of agencies working on cyber-security creates vulnerabilities and confused lines of responsibility. And third, Germans need to get better at minding their yards. Many victims used passwords like “123456” or “iloveyou”; classic examples of poor cyber-hygiene. Cleanliness, after all, is next to G0dliness.

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