Macron Victim of Cyber Attack Similar to U.S. Democratic Party’s

  • Trend Micro attributes the attacks to hacker group Pawn Storm
  • Front-runner’s campaign says network hasn’t been compromised

Who's Winning the Battle in Digital Warfare?

French presidential front-runner Emmanuel Macron has been hit repeatedly in recent weeks by cyber attacks closely resembling those used to infiltrate Democratic Party organizations in the U.S. last year, according to a report by cyber-security consultant Trend Micro.

Trend Micro attributed the attacks to Pawn Storm, which it described as an "active cyber espionage actor group" that has carried out such hits in more than a dozen countries. The French government’s cyber-security agency ANSSI confirmed it has identified such attacks, saying it was “a classic modus operandi of Pawn Storm.” It, however, said the attacks could also be the work “other high-level” hackers trying to pin the operations on Pawn Storm.

Some cyber-security experts have linked Pawn Storm to Russian intelligence services, but Trend Micro has no proof of Russia’s involvement, said Loïc Guezo, a Paris-based cyber-security strategist for the company.

Macron, who faces a May 7 election runoff against the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, has complained previously that Russian state news agencies have tried to disrupt his campaign with fake news reports. Last month, Macron was hit by a fake-news hoax in which a bogus website resembling the site of Belgian newspaper Le Soir reported that Saudi Arabia was financing his campaign.

Between mid-March and mid-April, Pawn Storm hackers set up at least five fake websites resembling those of Macron’s campaign site, Guezo said.

Major Damage

Emails were sent from the sites to people connected to the campaign, with attachments that would plant spyware on their computers if opened. The technique, known as spearphishing, can cause major damage. That’s what happened last year when hackers released a trove of emails that cast the Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in an unfavorable light. The U.S. is now investigating possible Russian involvement in that case.

Polls suggest Macron would beat Le Pen in the runoff by at least 20 percentage points. The front-runner, who takes a tougher stance on Russia than Le Pen, has charged Kremlin-controlled media outlets with spreading baseless news about him. In March, Le Pen, who favors lifting sanctions against Russia, traveled to Moscow and was received by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Macron aides said they don’t think the attacks on his campaign have succeeded.

Aurore Berge, a campaign adviser, said that campaign staff members "hardly use any email," banking instead on encrypted messaging services for most digital communication.

In an interview published Monday on French news website Silicon.fr , Mounir Mahjoubi, Macron’s director of digital operations, said hackers had "gathered all the names, public or semi-public, associated with the team of [Macron’s campaign] and targeted all of them."

Fake Logins

However, Mahjoubi told Silicon.fr that the campaign had taken measures to prevent spyware infection from such emails, and even counter-attacked the hackers, "by sending them massive numbers of fake logins and passwords." Calls by Bloomberg to Mahjoubi were not answered.

According to Trend Micro, other targets of Pawn Storm include German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party, which was attacked in May and June 2016, and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a foundation associated with the CDU, hit earlier this month.

Watch Next: Future of France: Macron and Le Pen Go Head-to-Head

(Corrects spelling of strategist’s name in story published on April 25.)
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