German cyber chief suspended following allegation he associated with Russian intelligence

The head of Germany’s federal cybersecurity office has been suspended, a spokesperson confirmed on Tuesday, following accusations that he had associated with a business connected to the Russian intelligence services. 

Arne Schönbohm, who has been president of the Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) since 2016, has been under scrutiny since the allegations were raised in a late night satirical television show called ZDF Magazine Royale.

The head of Germany’s Interior Ministry, Nancy Faeser, has prohibited him from “conducting official business as President of the BSI with immediate effect” a spokesperson told The Record.

ZDF’s comic segment stated that Schönbohm gave a speech in September at an event hosted by a trade association he formerly managed called Cyber Security Council Germany. The association includes among its members a company called Protelion, a subsidiary of a Russian company founded by an individual who formerly worked for the KGB and has been honored by president Vladimir Putin.

In a later report in Der Spiegel, several of the allegations included in the Magazine Royale show were contradicted, including that Schönbohm’s speech was improper — the magazine reported it had been sanctioned — and that it may have led to any undue influence at BSI, which had rejected an application for software certification submitted by Protelion in March 2021.

The television program included a joke that Protelion, which was formerly known as Infotecs, “wants to protect our critical infrastructure from Russian cyber attacks [but] works with Russian intelligence services.”

Cyber Security Council Germany expelled Protelion as a member following the program, but refuted the allegation it was being influenced by Russia. The outcry led to several of the association’s other members publicly leaving and distancing themselves from the group.

The Interior Ministry spokesperson confirmed: “The background to this is not least the allegations, which are well-known and widely discussed in the media, and which have permanently damaged the public's necessary trust in the neutrality and impartiality of the conduct of his office as President of the most important German cyber security authority.”

They added that the importance of this trust “applies all the more in the current crisis situation with regard to Russian hybrid warfare.”

Schönbohm’s suspension was also made “out of concern for the person who is the focus of the debate” the spokesperson said, as well as “in the interests of the more than 1,500 employees of the BSI, who can now carry out their work, which is so important for IT security in Germany, independently of personal speculation.”

They stressed that the allegations against him are being “thoroughly and vigorously examined and subjected to an in-depth assessment. Until the conclusion of this examination, the presumption of innocence applies to Mr. Schönbohm as a person.”

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Alexander Martin

Alexander Martin

is the UK Editor for Recorded Future News. He was previously a technology reporter for Sky News and is also a fellow at the European Cyber Conflict Research Initiative.