A scope into Austrian election hacking

RapidVPN/ October 10, 2019/ Blog/

Austrian conservative leader Sebastian Kurz is heading back to power in Vienna, finishing election after a slide in support for the country’s far-right.

Exit polls suggest the 33-year-old’s People’s Party (ÖVP) finished with nearly 37 percent, up nearly six points on the last election in 2017. His coalition options are open after the populist Freedom Party (FPÖ), his former partner, saw a 10-point collapse in support to about 16 percent after an early election prompted by a graft scandal and video sting.

A video was showing former Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache offering favors to a purported Russian investor triggered the collapse of Kurz’s 17-month government with them in May.

Strache also faces an investigation for suspected breach of trust over the alleged billing of private expenses to his party, which contributed to its weak third-place finish Sunday with 16% of the vote.

Hacking the Viennese headquarters

But just three weeks before a snap election, Austria’s conservative People’s Party has said it has discovered and closed down a hacking operation on the computer network of its Viennese party headquarters.

Party officials said this turned up someone using unauthorized administration access to the system.

In the past few weeks, internal documents from the ÖVP headquarters were published in the media twice. First, a list of party donors landed via anonymous sender in the digital mailbox of the “standard.” The publication by the daily newspaper was the ÖVP preempted by the donor data itself published via mailing.

On Monday following the Viennese weekly newspaper “Falter” with a report on allegedly planned increased election costs of the People’s Party. Accordingly, the ÖVP has so far estimated officially 6.3 million euros. From internal documents, however, it should emerge that the turquoise election campaign will cost nine million euros. In the official account, therefore, certain costs – such as for campaign gifts such as pens or video productions – would be recorded as general expenses and thus taken out of the campaign budget. Also, the ÖVP has tried to record high costs before the legal deadline on 9 July.

The ÖVP denied this presentation on Monday immediately, on Tuesday it announced legal action: they would complain the newspaper to omission. Because, as ÖVP General Secretary Karl Nehammer announced: It was “a limit has been exceeded.” One can not judge whether the “moth” has “deliberately made false allegations” or “falsified or forged documents” was. In any case, the report is not true and contains “false claims”.

A total of 17 points from the “Falter” report were criticized, including the main allegation that the two million pens bought by ÖVP in 2017 had not been declared as campaign costs. These were explicitly stated by the ÖVP as an election campaign post.

“There was a very targeted hacker attack on the servers of the People’s Party with the goal of removing, inserting, manipulating and falsifying data,” said Mr. Kurz at a press conference, saying the goal was to “link true and false, and damage us at the election”.

“This is not just an attack on the People’s Party but also an attack on the democratic system,” he added.

The investigation

For its part, the Freedom Party has suggested, without offering evidence, that the Ibiza video and the People’s Party hacker attack originated with the same source.

It has demanded a full investigation by Austria’s national security council, saying: “Preventing such democracy-endangering attacks concerning elections is a fundamental concern for the security of Austria.”

Meanwhile Europol – the European investigation authority – also investigates the ÖVP data case. The local police are likely from a “real hacker attack on the ÖVP”, so insiders. And the prosecutor yesterday confirmed that there would be “foreign-related” investigations. The data stolen from the ÖVP should finally be on data carriers in France.

According to AUSTRIA research, the hackers of the VP material have leaked all the data that has been stored on the servers of the ÖVP headquarters in Vienna since the 1990s.

That means: all accounts, invoices, receipts, contracts – since the senior team of former VP Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel – are in the possession of these suspected cyber warriors. Thus, all salaries of party employees and consultancy contracts for outsiders are now visible.

Also, all e-mails – from party leaders, secretaries-general, employees – were skimmed off.

And last but not least, the hackers have also been given access to all mailing lists of the People’s Party. That, in turn, affects hundreds of thousands of people who are not politicians.

Incidentally, that would not print thousands, but millions of pages. Using special software programs, you can of course quickly find what you need with keywords.

Prolonged leakage

According to VP, the hackers had been in the servers of the ÖVP for five weeks – including administration access. Insiders assume that the millions of data were “transferred in several tranches”. If it had happened at once, it would have taken at least 30 hours for it. The ÖVP data are, according to police circles on a server in France. But the original traces of the hackers would lead to political circles in Austria. The virtual thieves may have “made more mistakes than expected”. Kurz’s cybersecurity expert Avi Kravitz had unofficially seen a “parallel to the hacker attack” against Emmanuel Macron in the 2017 presidential campaign right at the start of the investigation. At that time Russian and right-wing circles were under suspicion.