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German Embassy denies visa appointments hack

A cyber warfare expert works on his Apple laptop computer during a portrait session in Charlotte, North Carolina in this December 1, 2011 file photograph. (REUTERS/John Adkisson/Files)

BEIRUT: The German Embassy Thursday denied reports that their visa appointment system had been hacked to ensure slots were booked up minutes after they were released, saying the problem was due to over-demand and had since been rectified. A report emerged last week in German national newspaper Welt am Sonntag, the Sunday edition of Die Welt, alleging that hackers had infiltrated the German Embassy’s visa appointment system in Beirut and were snapping up all available slots to sell them on the black market in Damascus for up to $5,000.

But the embassy categorically denied that anyone had hacked the visa appointment website.

“At no point was the system hacked,” a spokesman for the embassy told The Daily Star. “It [the website] was checked in Berlin ... where it is run from.”

“It would have been much more in the news if it were true,” he added. “We always have difficulties accommodating the number of Syrians applying with the slots we have, so we have been extending our services a lot ... there are now slots constantly available.”

When The Daily Star checked late Thursday, there was one slot available for Syrians wishing to apply for a family reunion national visa appointment, and none for those seeking to apply for a Schengen EU visa appointment.

However, it appears that it is the Lebanese part of the booking system that has had to be shut down due to “misuse,” according to a statement on the website. The German Embassy in Beirut has been accepting Syrian visa applications alongside Lebanese ever since the country’s Damascus consul was shut down in early 2012, but the booking system has two separate tracks according to nationality.

Lebanese applicants for family reunion visas must now go to the embassy in person between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. to get an appointment. The Schengen booking system remains unchanged and there were no appointments available when The Daily Star checked Thursday.

“By getting people to come in in person we can make sure that this person wants an appointment and that no one is booking for someone else,” the spokesman said. “We have seen this quite a lot with Lebanese, even back in the days [before the Internet] when we had queues outside the embassy.”

Whether hacked or not, the speed with which appointments disappeared has been a source of distress for many.

For Rami Sleiman, a 23-year-old from Beirut’s southern suburbs, it was only through sheer chance that he managed to get a rereleased family reunion slot to join his girlfriend in Germany.

“When I was looking in December, all the appointments were closed,” he said. “I was so bummed ... They were all taken till mid-January.”

“So my girlfriend and I started refreshing the page every couple of seconds, all day. We did that for about a week,” he said. “One afternoon – I remember it was exactly 4 p.m. – an appointment suddenly popped up and I put in my details but I got something wrong. So I refreshed the page, put in my details again and then the website crashed.

“I was so upset, but then I got an email saying I had an appointment on Jan. 24. I was really lucky.”

When asked if he thought the system has been hacked he said he had a suspicion but wasn’t sure: “It doesn’t make sense that they go so fast, you need a full name and a passport number ... but who knows?”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 11, 2014, on page 4.

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Summary

A report emerged last week in German national newspaper Welt am Sonntag, the Sunday edition of Die Welt, alleging that hackers had infiltrated the German Embassy's visa appointment system in Beirut and were snapping up all available slots to sell them on the black market in Damascus for up to $5,000 .

But the embassy categorically denied that anyone had hacked the visa appointment website.

When The Daily Star checked late Thursday, there was one slot available for Syrians wishing to apply for a family reunion national visa appointment, and none for those seeking to apply for a Schengen EU visa appointment.

Lebanese applicants for family reunion visas must now go to the embassy in person between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. to get an appointment. The Schengen booking system remains unchanged and there were no appointments available when The Daily Star checked Thursday.


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