A 20-year old student living with his parents in the German state of Hesse has admitted to illegally accessing and publicly leaking personal data belonging to nearly 1,000 politicians, journalists, and other public figures in Germany.
A statement from the country's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) did not identify the individual by name but said he had been provisionally arrested on charges related to spying and unauthorized disclosure of personal data. He was later released because there was no legal basis for detaining him.
Germany's Bild newspaper quoted local officials as saying the provisional arrest was lifted based on the hacker's confession and the assessment that he possessed no flight risk. The hacker's young age also contributed to the decision by German authorities to not detain him. The individual is expected to be tried as a juvenile and could end up with a relatively light sentence.
Police have recovered a computer and a storage device from the individual's home and are currently analyzing them for evidence.
According to the BKA, the hacker claimed he had acted alone and had been motivated by a sense of anger over public statements by politicians and others. "The investigations have so far revealed no evidence of third party participation," the statement noted.
The 20-year old, who used the online handles "G0d" and "0rbit," began leaking the information via two Twitter accounts in early December. But the leaks weren't noticed until last week.
One of the Twitter accounts he used was hijacked and belonged to an unidentified YouTube artist. The student used a VPN service to access the Twitter accounts in a bid to anonymize his connection, the BKS said. At least some of the leaked information - which included phone numbers, credit card data, addresses, photos and email communications - appears to have been obtained from public sources.
It remains unclear how he obtained the rest of the data. In comments to various media outlets last week, Germany's Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said there was no evidence that any German government IT system or network had been compromised. Instead, the data appears to have been accessed by someone using stolen login credentials for email accounts, cloud services, and social media accounts containing victim data, Seehofer had noted.
The information leaks have garnered considerable attention both for its scope and for the fact that victims have included members of parliament and politicians from every major German party except the right wing Alternative for Germany (AfD).
Some had taken that as an indication that the leaks were politically and ideologically motivated. The data compromise had also evoked some comparisons to the cyber attacks on the Democratic Party and the subsequent data leaks in the run up to the 2016 U.S. Presidential Elections.
"It's unsettling to think a single person pulled this off," says Tom Goodman, director of international cyber business at Raytheon Intelligence, information and services. But it is not entirely unsurprising either, he says.
"Just like small bands of insurgents commit acts of asymmetric warfare and lone wolves can carry out devastating terror attacks, single cyberattackers can cause significant damage with an Internet connection and a little persistence," Goodman says.
Security experts last week had theorized that the hacker would have had to break into multiple types of accounts to gather all of the information that was leaked. It is currently not clear if that is indeed how the 20-year old obtained the data.
German authorities have merely noted they know how the theft was accomplished and have described the method used as "sophisticated." But they are unwilling to disclose it in order to avoid imitators, Bild said. A German official speaking with the paper described the hacker as a "nerd" with no former computer training but being very savvy and technically capable all the same.
The data compromise—and the fact that it wasn't discovered for several weeks—is prompting change. According to Bild, Seehofer has announced planned improvements to the German government's cyber defense capabilities. One planned improvement is the addition of a 24/7 crew with an early warning system for quickly detecting and mitigating attacks, using the country's anti-terrorist center as a model, Bild said.
Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year ... View Full Bio