Germany may need constitutional change to allow it to strike back at hackers

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany may need to change its constitution to allow it to strike back at hackers who target private computer networks and it hopes to complete any legal reforms next year, a top Interior Ministry official said on Monday.

A hand is silhouetted in front of a computer screen in this picture illustration taken in Berlin May 21, 2013. REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski

The plan could include disarming servers used in attacks and reflects growing concern about the frequency and intensity of such attacks. Industry is also raising pressure on government to respond to the barrage, which ultimately could hurt Europe’s leading economy.

State Secretary Klaus Vitt told Reuters the government believed “significant legal changes would be needed” to allow such “hack back” actions.

“A constitutional change may be needed since this is such a critical issue,” Vitt said on the sidelines of a cyber conference organized by the Handelsblatt newspaper. “The goal is to get it done by the end of next year at the latest.”

Vitt said much would depend on the outcome of coalition talks in Germany of which cyber capabilities formed a part.

Experts say it may be easier to enact the legal changes under a right-center-left coalition, which has ruled for the past four years, than under a three-way coalition with smaller parties that Chancellor Angela Merkel initially tried to forge.

Top German intelligence officials told parliament last month they needed greater legal authority to strike back in the event of cyber attacks from foreign powers.

Vitt told the conference that changing threats and new modes of attack required different responses from government agencies including more “offensive” capabilities.

“We must assume that purely preventative measures will not be sufficient to counter future attacks,” Vitt said.

He said no one would question the need for police to enter a house and disarm a sniper shooting at innocent people. “But what about servers that are used to launch cyber attacks that paralyze the IT (information technology) of hospitals or utilities, affecting hundreds of thousands of people?”

Andreas Jambor, chief information security officer for RWE Generation SE, a unit of German energy giant RWE RWEG.DE, welcomed the moves.

“There’s a war underway on the internet .... We want things to be sorted out,” Jambor said. “Other countries are doing it and we should do it here as well.”

Andreas Ebert, head of security for German carmaker Volkswagen VOWG_p.DE said any offensive action should be taken by the government.

Arne Schoenbohm, president of Germany’s BSI federal cyber protection agency, declined to give details about the legal concepts being developed. He said the need to target servers would likely make up just “0.01 percent of all cases.”

Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg