Tuesday

7th Jul 2020

Investigation

US ignites debate on Russia's role in Macron hack

  • Paris: One cyber expert said a lone far-right activist could have done the Macron hack (Photo: Pedro Lastra)

The US has said Russia was behind the pre-election hack in France, but some cyber experts were less sure.

Mike Rogers, the head of the US spy agency, the NSA (National Security Agency), told a Senate hearing in Washington on Tuesday (9 May) that the Russian regime stole and leaked thousands of emails from France’s now-incoming leader, Emmanuel Macron, on the eve of the French election last week.

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  • Bundestag: German elections already targeted by Pawn Storm group (Photo: Pierre)

Asked about the leak, which was splashed on social media last Friday, on 5 May, Rogers said: “We had become aware of Russian activity”.

“We had talked to our French counterparts prior to the public announcements [leaks] ... and gave them a heads-up: ‘Look, we’re watching the Russians, we’re seeing them penetrate some of your infrastructure’,” he said.

US intelligence officials, speaking to the Reuters news agency, corroborated Rogers’ accusation.

The 5-May leak was done by "entities with known ties to Russian intelligence”, one of them said.

Some cyber security firms, such as the US-based Flashpoint and BigID, have agreed.

Trend Micro, a Japanese-based firm which has tracked Russian state hackers for over two years, has also said that Pawn Storm, a group linked to Russia’s GRU military intelligence service, was behind an earlier attack on Macron’s team in March.

But Loic Guezo, an expert from the firm’s Paris office, told EUobserver on Tuesday that the 5-May Macron leak had a different “modus operandi”.

Speaking prior to Rogers’ testimony, Guezo noted that US intelligence services, such as the NSA, were able to make accusations on the basis of external evidence, such as intercepted phone calls, but he said that internal evidence did not point to Russia’s role in the 5-May leak.

“We are not a counter-intelligence organisation, so we don’t have this kind of evidence,” Guezo said.

Modus operandi

Guezo said Pawn Storm had in the past hacked targets well in advance of the leak date, that it had picked out compromising content, and that it had fed that content to media at a time designed to maximise harm.

But he noted that the 5-May hack was done at the last minute, the material was dumped en bloc, it came out just before a pre-election media blackout, and was later found to contain nothing that compromised Macron.

“If you look at the Podesta emails, these were selected and released with some kind of agenda”, he said, referring to Pawn Storm’s hack of Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta, in the US election last year.

“But here, the whole pile of documents was dumped a few minutes before the official media ban in a big risk, a big bet,” he said.

He said the last email in the Macron cache was dated 24 April, indicating that that was when the hack took place.

He said the “bet” failed because French media respected the blackout and because the material contained “nothing interesting”.

Guezo added that it looked suspicious that the far-right National Front [FN] party, whose candidate, Marine Le Pen, was running against Macron, publicly commented on the leak at the very same moment that it came out on social media.

He stopped short of accusing the National Front of doing the hack, but he said the “timing of the comments by Florian Philippot [the FN’s vice-president] seem relevant to the investigation”.

He said Pawn Storm operations, which targeted institutions, including military bodies, for years at a time, required state-level resources.

But he said the “one-off” hack on Macron could have been “not some team, but one guy setting up a simple phishing attack”, referring to a type of attack which uses fake emails or websites to steal people’s passwords.

“It could even have been some alt-right activist in the US hacking Macron’s team. It’s fully open”, Guezo said.

Some of the leaked files had metadata which contained a Russian name linked to Russia’s FSB intelligence service, but Guezo said that that looked like a red herring.

He said it would be “very strange” if Russian intelligence services had left evidence of their involvement.

“In cyber, you never find the smoking gun. Attackers can create digital fog. They can mimic other groups, copy their tools”, he said.

German elections

The NSA’s Rogers told the Senate on Tuesday that he was also working with British and German authorities to block Russian hacks ahead of elections there in June and September.

“We’re doing similar things with our German and British counterparts, they have an upcoming election sequence,” he said.

“We need to make it very clear to nation-states that engage in this behaviour that it’s unacceptable and there’s a price to pay for doing this,” he added.

Trend Micro, in a recent report, said Pawn Storm had hacked the ruling CDU party of German chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as its foundation, the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, in operations dating back to April last year.

The firm’s Guezo told EUobserver there was a strong chance that some CDU officials or MPs were still “infected” with its malware.

“They [Pawn Storm] tend to flood the whole organisation”, he said.

“They keep most targets at the first level of infection, effectively doing nothing, but if these people enter into the public focus at a later stage, or they see some sensitive document from that person, they can move to the second stage”, he said, referring to extraction and leaks of data.

He said it would be difficult for France, Germany, or the UK to make Russia pay a “price” for hacking by conducting a cyber counter-strike, however.

He said French law would only permit a counter-strike if it was immediate, proportionate, and limited in its effect.

But he said Russian hacks were typically detected long after they occurred and that a “hack-back” against foreign servers would be likely to cause collateral damage to private users who had nothing to do with the Russian regime.

Journalists targeted

Guezo told EUobserver that Pawn Storm was also targeting journalists whose reporting went against Russia’s interests.

The list of media attacked by Pawn Storm so far includes: Buzzfeed and The New York Times in the US, The Economist in the UK, Arabic news agency Al Jazeera, and several Turkish and Ukrainian outlets.

“If they hack journalists they can have access to their sources and try to discredit them”, Guezo said.

He said Russian state media RT France and Sputnik France also made personal attacks on journalists from French media Liberation and AFP.

“In some cases, they used the journalists’ personal tweets to try to discredit their work”, he said.

He said Pawn Storm, which works hand-in-glove with Russian state media, also approached mainstream Western media with baited material.

“We’ve seen a lot of this activity by Pawn Storm in Germany, reaching out, for instance, to Der Spiegel”, Guezo said.

“They sent a preview of hacked material and proposed an exclusive scoop”, he said.

“They wanted to influence opinion by creating a press buzz on topics that had been selected by Pawn Storm and based on material that may have been incomplete or even altered in order to suit its agenda”, the French expert said.

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