In a country famous for its spy scandals, revelations here of an espionage ring centered on amateur computer “hackers” have added a new dimension to one of the world’s oldest professions.
In some ways, it is hardly surprising that the first known instance of spies obtaining their information by breaking into classified computer data bases should occur in West Germany.
West Germans are both unusually vulnerable to subversion because of strong humanitarian links with Communist East Germany and fascination with computers.
It was that combination that led to the current scandal.
The group is believed to have given confidential passwords and classified data from several highly sensitive computer data bases in the United States, Western Europe and Japan to Soviet agents.
Seven Men Released
Seven of the eight men originally detained in police raids earlier in the week were released pending further investigation of the alleged computer spy ring.
Alexander Prechtel, spokesman for the West German Federal Prosecutor’s Office said that the 34-year-old man still in custody --identified only as Peter C., from the north West German city of Hanover--could be held for weeks before being formally charged.
“We must now determine how deep they were able to penetrate and exactly what computers they got into,” he said. “Our impression is they tried a lot of computers but may not have got into that many.”
West German press reaction to the country’s latest spy scandal has been swift:
“A new era of espionage has begun,” declared Saturday’s edition of Hamburg’s Morgenpost in one of several editorials commenting on West Germany’s latest, unsettling technological first.
The Essen-based Neue Ruhr Zeitung commented that the personal computer now belongs among “the important utensils of the secret agent who wants to keep up to date.”
All of those suspected of involvement in the spy ring were said to be between 25 and 35 years old and amateur computer enthusiasts rather than professionals.
There are as many as 1,000 amateur computer clubs in this country, most of them populated by young people eager to engage in solving computer problems.
Only 18 months ago, amateur West German hackers were linked with break-ins to computers at the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency.
One well-known club, the Chaos Computer Club in Hamburg, reportedly passed a list to the Digital Equipment Corp. of its computer systems that had been cracked by outsiders. The list was said to have stunned company officials.
“There’s a tendency for perfection in Germany, and there are many who are fascinated by technology,” noted Normen Kowalewski, a Bonn University student and hacker who lives with two Atari computers in a village a few miles north of the capital.
He recalled several years ago how young people attempted to break into large computers when rumors circulated it was possible.
“It was exciting, a kind of sport to get your little computer hooked into a huge system,” he said.
Wau Holland, a member of the board at the Chaos Computer Club argued the combination of West Germany’s tightly regulated data transmission system and a persistent refusal of German computer owners to admit their systems are vulnerable provided an ideal challenge for hackers.
West German law, for example, until recently stipulated heavy fines and possible imprisonment for using anything but expensive federal post office hardware for data transmission.
“If the system is hard like that, people want to break it,” he said.
To prove large computer vulnerability, club members five years ago broke into a savings bank computer, wrote themselves a credit of $75,000, then mailed it back to a shocked management.
Holland claimed his club warned officials last year that federal government and other sensitive computer systems could be penetrated.
“It isn’t as easy as it once was, but I don’t believe any system is fool-proof,” he added.
Hans Neusel, a state secretary in Bonn’s Interior Ministry, pledged Friday to develop tighter security measures to protect confidential computer material.
Interior Ministry officials hinted at least some sensitive material probably passed to Soviet hands, and a reporter for West German television’s “Panorama” public affairs program, which first brought the current case to public attention last Thursday, said that confidential data on high technology electronic semiconductor chip designs and possibly even some West European defense plans were involved.