The Czech Republic has suffered a damaging security breach after hackers infiltrated the emails of dozens of its most senior diplomats in a massive cyber-attack thought to have been carried out by Russia.
Lubomír Zaorálek, the country’s foreign minister, admitted that his own email account had been breached in a “sophisticated” operation he compared to the onslaught against the Democratic party in the recent US presidential election.
The hack was detected by cyber-experts at the Czech foreign ministry this month, prompting emergency security measures that included password changes.
Some of the correspondence is believed to have concerned the Czech Republic’s relations with its Nato and European Union allies, although Zaorálek contradicted local media reports that classified information had been breached.
Zaorálek did not specify which foreign country he believed was involved but another foreign ministry official – speaking anonymously – confirmed that fingers were being pointed at Russia, which was also blamed by US intelligence officials for the cyber-attack against the Democratic party.
“When I discussed this with the best experts that we have here, they told me that the character of the attack was such that the attack was very sophisticated, that it must have been, according to them, conducted by some foreign state, from the outside,” Zaorálek told a news conference, called after a news site revealed the hack.
“They also told me that the way the attack was done very much resembles the character of attacks against the system of the Democratic party in the United States.”
Neovlivni.cz, a Czech investigative news site, said “thousands of files were downloaded” from the inboxes of Zaorálek and his under-secretaries in what it called the Czech Republic’s “biggest security scandal of recent years”.
Vlado Bizik, a cybersecurity expert with the Prague-based European Values thinktank, said the hack resembled another carried out against the Polish foreign ministry recently, also believed to be Russia’s handiwork.
“The Polish hack was perpetrated by a hard-to-detect Trojan horse,” he said. “Such sophisticated programmes are usually sponsored by state actors and Russia is the one which has the most to gain. I’m quite sure a lot of damage has already been done.
They say no classified information was compromised because that was only on the internal system but we don’t know what was being shared outside that system.”
Bohuslav Sobotka, the Czech prime minister, called the hack “serious” and said it must be “thoroughly investigated”. A special taskforce has been formed to prevent a recurrence.
The attack was reminiscent of one carried out against Sobotka in 2015, when his account was hacked and email correspondence with officials later appeared on an obscure white supremacist website.
The latest episode occurred amid a protracted wrangle over an alleged Russian hacker, Yevgeniy Nikulin, currently being held in the Czech Republic while officials debate an extradition request from the US, which accuses him of breaking into three social media sites: Formspring, LinkedIn and Dropbox.
Russia is also seeking Nikulin’s extradition in a case that is said to have turned into a diplomatic tug-of-war.