Hackers in Bundeswehr uniforms, what German “cyber warriors” are doing
The German Center for Cyber Operations (ZCO) is located not far from Bonn, in the idyllic town of Rheinbach on the Rhine. There in the Tomburg barracks, the Bundeswehr is engaged in digital warfare. What is done in the ZCO is usually called hacking – a crime that can end in prison.
German soldiers and soldiers in that center, on the orders of the state, practice breaking into other people’s computer networks, learning how to steal important information, manipulate data and how to turn off complete computer networks if necessary.
About 200 of them, among them only three women, are looking for weak points of the opposing IT systems, but they are also trying to attack the IT infrastructure of the Bundeswehr in order to find weak points in their defense.
The ZCO Cyber Operations Center is part of the Command Cyber and Information Center, which was established in 2017. It has more than 20 locations across the country – most of them in and around Bonn. There is also the IT hub of the Bundeswehr whose systems hackers want to protect. Nearby is the Federal Institute for Security and IT, as well as the Cyber Defense Center of the German “Telecom”.
Hackers – a small investment, a great pity
The issue of cyber security was a priority of Berlin policy even before the Russian attack on Ukraine.
The increasingly intense intertwining of the analog and digital worlds offers attackers in cyber waters the opportunity to do great damage with relatively small investments. For example, when it comes to water supply, electricity, flight safety and traffic control.
The coalition agreement states: “The Bundeswehr must be able to work successfully with other federal agencies in the cyberspace and information space.” The war in Ukraine has further intensified discussions on this topic. Concerns about Russian cyber attacks have grown.
At the beginning of June, a law was adopted in the Bundestag, which makes 100 billion euros available to the Bundeswehr, and in the coming years it should spend as much as 20 billion of that amount for “digital needs”!
The list of materials to be procured is long, from digital radio devices to complete information systems. Only a small portion of that money will be made available to cyber warriors.
People are the most expensive
Hackers in uniform do not need expensive hardware. “We don’t need 60 tons of iron, as is the case with a battle tank,” a ZCO member tells us. But on the other hand, what is more expensive and harder to get are – specialists.
During her recent visit, Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht “advertised” the Bundeswehr as a good employer. This means that the Bundeswehr already offers good salaries during education, and later good career chances and social security.
One soldier tells us that he is motivated for another reason: “Here, by state order, I am doing what I would otherwise have to count on to deal with the police.”
And for that, he needs a “hacking license”, that is, an official permit. Any operation in which “intrusion” into other people’s networks must be approved by the top of the Ministry of Defense, at least at the level of the Secretary of State. And how often does that happen? Nobody in Rheinbach wanted to reveal that to us.