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German space centre endures cyber attack

Chinese code retrieved but NSA hack not ruled out

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Germany’s space research centre in Cologne has been the victim of a co-ordinated and covert targeted attack carried out by state-sponsored hackers, according to a Der Spiegel report.

The paper's report says that last Sunday the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) contacted the National Cyber Defence Centre in Bonn after it found malware on machines used by researchers and sysadmins.

The attack was “co-ordinated and systematic” with some of the Trojans used designed to self-destruct on discovery, while other malware lay silent for several months before being activated, according to the report.

As for attribution, that’s proving harder to pin down.

Although Chinese characters have been found in some of the malicious code recovered and some “recurring typos” may suggest an attacker from the Middle Kingdom, this could be mere “camouflage”, an insider told Der Spiegel.

As such, the NSA can’t be completely ruled out, he said.

The news set alarm bells ringing in Berlin as DLR not only researches space and aeronautics systems but also “armament and rocket technologies”.

Given the United States’ pre-eminent global position in space exploration, it’s unlikely but not impossible that it would resort to such tactics.

China would seem more likely on first glance. This is despite the fact that Germany became the first foreign country to collaborate with the Middle Kingdom on its space missions when a DLR-developed SIMBOX project was carried on the Shenzhou 8 mission in 2011.

DLR signed a deal with China on co-operation in space as far back as 2008. ®

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