By Akilnathan Logeswaran
In spite of the successful completion of French Presidential elections, an array of questions has been raised, concerning the role of foreign influences in the determination of election outcomes.
The hack that perturbed France
As soon as the voting for the election of French President was heralded, multiple sources reported that the campaign of the 10th President of the French Republic Emmanuel Macron, then a Presidential candidate, was intercepted by Russian hackers. A chunk of his documents and e-mails were strewn online. This interception was motivated, in all probability, by a desire to mould public opinion against Mr Macron.
Plausibility of Russian involvement
According to a report from the Tokyo-based cyber security firm Trend Micro, a Russian intelligence unit targeted Macron’s campaign from March to April 2017, sending e-mails designed to lure mid-level campaign managers into handing over their passwords. Trend Micro further believes this interceptor to be the same Russian group, known by a multiplicity of names including ‘Apt28’, ‘Pawn Storm’ & ‘Fancy Bear’, who hacked the e-mails from the Democratic National Committee during the US presidential election in 2016.
Le Pen has a soft corner for Russia?
While it is uncertain whether the attacks can be attributed to these Russian groups or other groups that mimic the same behavior, there is nothing to deny the existence of Russian interests behind it. The former leader of the French National Front, Le Pen, has a record of ties with Russia and preference for its leadership. In 2017, she met the Russian leadership in what seemed to be an ad-hoc meeting. In 2014, her campaign received a USD 10-12 million loan from a Russian bank. In 2011, Le Pen ventilated her favourable stance towards Russia to the Russian publication, Kommersant: “I won’t hide that, in a certain sense, I admire Vladimir Putin”.
But En Marche! knew better
In spite of the meticulously planned attack, the Macron camp was swift enough to halt it, before it led to any significant repercussions for the elections. The head of Macron’s digital team Mounir Mahjoubi recently explained how the attacks on Hillary Clinton’s campaign inspired them to not only be more vigilant in defending their cyber security but also to launch “counter-attacks” against the hackers.
The Macron campaign was frequently targeted by phishing attacks which would send emails with links to credible-looking, yet fake, log-in screens with slight changes in the web addresses, e.g. using dots rather than hyphens, etc. Once a user would sign in, the hackers would have access to all of the user’s emails. They frequently – on a weekly basis – informed the team about the recent attacks, but here comes the real trick: They did not try to not open these false URLs, rather they opened them more often than the hackers expected.
Macron’s cyber experts have a field day
As Mounir said, “You can flood these addresses with multiple passwords and log-ins, true ones, false ones, so the people behind them use up a lot of time trying to figure them out.”
With so much information the hackers must have had truly a hard time to verify what was true and obviously wasted numerous hours trying to sort all of the misinformation. Probably, this also explains the unorganised load of the 9 GB worth of stolen campaign emails that was uploaded onto the anonymous site 4chan, which literally did not bring any valuable insights until today.
After all, President Macron’s team used a tactic that George Washington and Mao Zedong once endorsed-“Attack is the best form of defence!”. It was the clever counter-attack as well as the preventive approach of the Macron camp that despite the hack, Mr Macron’s election campaign did not suffer a single setback.
The author is a curator at the World Economic Forum Global Shapers and a consultant at Deloitte Digital, Germany.