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Germany’s cyber security chief sacked over alleged Russia links

The head of Germany’s national cyber security agency Arne Schönbohm has been sacked over reports of his alleged ties to Russian intelligence.

A government statement said interior minister Nancy Faeser had released Schönbohm from his duties with immediate effect after the German media aired accusations against him.

The allegations centre on his links to an organisation known as the “German Cyber Security Council”, which he co-founded roughly a decade ago. According to reports in the German media, one of its members is a company founded by a former Russian intelligence agent.

The Schönbohm scandal comes at a time of heightened fears that Russia might target Germany’s critical infrastructure over its support for Ukraine. This month the country’s rail network fell victim to an act of sabotage that briefly paralysed all train services in northern Germany.

An interior ministry spokeswoman said the allegations against Schönbohm had “caused lasting damage to the public’s necessary trust in the neutrality and impartiality of his leadership . . . of the most important German cyber security agency”.

The accusations were all the more concerning “in view of Russia’s hybrid warfare”. They had also undermined the “essential relationship of trust between the minister and the leadership” of the BSI.

Schönbohm has been in the public spotlight since a report on the German TV programme ZDF Magazin Royale this month highlighted his relationship with the German Cyber Security Council. The BSI chief had given a speech at the council’s 10-year anniversary celebration earlier this year, although he had told subordinates not to appear at its events.

The programme also focused on a Berlin-based cyber security company called Protelion that had until recently been a member of the council. The company, which was previously called Infotecs, was a subsidiary of a Russian company called OAO Infotecs. According to the research network Policy Network Analytics, OAO Infotecs was founded by a former employee of the KGB, whom Russian president Vladimir Putin had rewarded with an honorary medal.

Protelion declined to comment. OAO Infotecs could not be reached for comment.

The German Cyber Security Council said last week it had excluded Protelion as a member, saying its actions had been a “violation of the goals” of the association.

The interior ministry spokeswoman said the decision to release Schönbohm from his duties was also made out of the duty of care towards the BSI chief himself as well as the 1,500 employees of the agency who could “now pursue their work, which is so important for Germany’s IT security, regardless of speculations about personnel”.

She said the accusations against Schönbohm would now be thoroughly investigated and evaluated. Until it was completed, “the presumption of innocence applies to Mr Schönbohm”.

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