Watch out, Europe. Germany is top of Russian hackers’ list

Natalie Nougayrède writes: One year ago in Berlin, Lisa F, a 13-year-old German-Russian girl, disappeared for 30 hours. When she returned to her parents, she claimed she had been kidnapped and raped by “Arab” men. This was a lie – as she later admitted. She had fallen out with her parents and invented the whole story. But that did little to stop the episode from becoming the centrepiece of a whirlwind Russian disinformation campaign aimed at destabilising Angela Merkel and German institutions.

Russian state media and pro-Russian websites in Germany immediately swirled with reports. Merkel was already under pressure for her open-door policy on refugees. Now German far-right groups and representatives of Germany’s ethnic Russian community held demonstrations. The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, described Lisa (a dual German-Russian citizen) as “our girl” and accused German authorities of a cover-up and “whitewashing reality to make it politically correct”.

A diplomatic spat ensued, with the German foreign minister accusing Russia of “political propaganda”. Berlin officials struggled to counter the Russian campaign. But Moscow’s overt meddling in Germany’s domestic politics seeped into the public consciousness – for a while, at least.

Fast-forward to January 2017. The fallout from the Trump-Russia dossier has now placed Vladimir Putin and his power structure at the centre of American politics. For Europeans, a question arises: what could this all mean for the old continent, as it approaches key elections? This year, voting will take place in France, the Netherlands and in Germany. Remembering the Lisa scandal is important, for it says something about what may lie ahead.

Now that Russia’s covert activities are being so intensely discussed in the US, it is high time Europe placed as much attention on what it might, in turn, be confronted with – and to prepare itself. [Continue reading…]

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Comments

  1. Here’s something I don’t understand. Assuming that the basic picture is right — that the Russians are engaged in a massive disinformation & cyberattack campaign against political targets — why is the response so passive?

    “German officials are bracing themselves for more episodes…” Bracing themselves? That’s not how you fight an invader. Especially when you have the same weapons they do, and when the road they ride in on is the same road you can ride out on.

    Furthermore, internet security is a solved problem: if it weren’t, there would be no banking. The DNC was hackable because of laxness and sloth. All in all, very puzzling.

  2. Paul Woodward says:

    I think the hacking threat is less significant than the disinformation campaign. There were no earth-shaking revelations from the emails Wikileaks published. Their political effect would have been inconsequential had it not been for the role of chief Wikileaks booster, Donald Trump.

    Countering a disinformation campaign, on the other hand, is inherently difficult because fact-checking has virtually no impact on audiences that welcome their prejudices being confirmed.

    I think the apparent passivity in responding to the Russians has less to do with restraint than it has with the frustration that there are no obvious weapons with which we can fight back.

    Consider, for instance, an episode this weekend. I can’t document exactly what happened by I think it probably went something like this:

    Trump gave interviews to the London Times and Bild. The Russian Embassy in London saw the transcripts and then fed an obliging reporter at the Sunday Times, the “news” that Trump was going to make his first foreign trip to meet Putin in Iceland. This was an embellishment on Trump’s stated interest in doing a nuclear deal with Putin, but was crafted as a piece of fake news that could then be dismissed as fake news by both the Russians and the Trump team. This then served as distraction from the actual contents of the Trump interview.

    The overarching goal here is to leave most Europeans and Americans impervious to the serious consideration of all news reporting because they end up doubting that anything can be believed. The wider the cloud of skepticism grows, the freer governments become to operate without accountability.

    This is where Trump and Putin’s hearts meld: their interest in facing zero accountability.

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