Saturday

8th May 2021

Investigation

Lessons for Germany from the Macron hack

  • Sirota said phishing "is the new reality of political campaigning" (Photo: The Preiser Project)

The way the Macron team defended itself against hackers contained lessons for other political parties in Europe, but experts do not agree whether Russia did it.

Hackers tried to sway the French elections last weekend by leaking thousands of emails online that had been stolen from the campaign team of Emmanuel Macron, the incoming French president.

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  • Yampolskiy: "If you've done nothing bad, you've got nothing to hide" (Photo: Matthew Klein)

Speaking on French radio on Monday (8 May), Macron’s IT chief, Mounir Mahjoubi, said the attackers stole the contents of five email inboxes, including from the team’s chief financial officer.

He described one attack as being an email that was purportedly sent from their own press officer which said: “Some recommendations when you talk to the press, download this file as an attachment”.

The file contained malware, but the attack failed because the hacker’s verbal style was too dry.

“She never writes to us like that, this press officer,” Mahjoubi said.

He said the stolen files contained “jokes … tens of thousands of invoices from suppliers … organisation of events,” but “no secrets”.

He also said they contained “fake emails” and “information that we ourselves had sent in counter-retaliation for phishing [hacking] attempts”.

France’s cyber security service, the ANSSI, and public prosecutors and police in Paris are investigating who did it.

But suspicion surrounds Russia, which was already accused of attempting to hack Macron earlier in the campaign and of having hacked German MPs in the run-up to the German elections in autumn.

Aurelien Lechevallier, Macron’s foreign policy adviser, told the Politico news website that France would strike back against such attacks in future.

“We will have a doctrine of retaliation when it comes to Russian cyberattacks or any other kind of attacks”, he said.

Hans-Georg Massen, a German spy chief, said last week that Germany was also preparing to strike back.

“It is necessary that we are in a position to be able to wipe out these servers [foreign IT systems that store stolen information] if the providers and the owners of the servers are not ready to ensure that they are not used to carry out attacks”, he said.

Honey pots

EUobserver spoke to two US cyber security experts who said the way Mahjoubi handled the attacks contained lessons for German or other political parties in Europe.

Dimitri Sirota, the CEO of the New York-based firm BigID, said Mahjoubi was “smart” because he “added noise” to the real information that was available within his systems.

“Creating dummy data is smart because it provides you with the ability to both trace and discredit the leaker”, he said.

He said Mahjoubi also appeared to have used “honey pots” - fake targets designed to attract attacks, containing data that “compromised the attacker”.

Sirota added that political parties should get used to Macron-type attacks in future.

So-called “phishing” targets individuals with fake websites or emails designed to steal their passwords, as opposed to broader attacks designed to bypass firewalls or other cyber defences.

Sirota said that most data was now stored in “clouds,” which are managed by large IT firms such as Yahoo or Google, so that non-phishing hacks would have to penetrate the IT giants’ defences to succeed.

“This [phishing] is the new reality of political campaigning”, he added.

Aleksandr Yampolskiy, the head of the New York-based firm SecurityScorecard, also said Mahjoubi was “clever” because he used “deception technology,” instead of relying on old-fashioned “reactive technology”, such as firewalls or detection intrusion systems.

“You want to shift the cost from the defender to the attacker”, he said.

“You can leave the doors unlocked, but once they get in, they don’t know which documents are real and which ones are fake”, he said.

“If you mix fake dollar bills with real ones, and only you know which is which, it becomes more expensive for the attacker to check which ones to grab”, he said.

He said German political parties should coach their people on “social engineering” and should register internet domain names similar to their own.

Social engineering refers to hackers’ use of people’s personal information, for instance from Facebook, to make phishing attacks more convincing.

Squatting on similar domain names prevents attackers from using lookalike sites to steal passwords.

Attribution

Flashpoint, another US cyber security firm, told the Reuters and Bloomberg news agencies over the weekend that the Macron attack appeared to have been carried out by Russia.

It declined to give further details when contacted by EUobserver.

Sirota said it looked like Russia did it because the country had used similar methods in the US election last year and because it had also tried to harm Macron in overt ways, such as via Russian state propaganda.

“If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck”, he said.

Yampolskiy and other experts were more cautious, however.

With Macron also targeted by far-right activists in the US and UK, Yampolskiy said the attack was not that hard to do.

“You would not need sophisticated state machinery to do this - just one or two people with phishing expertise could pull it off”, he said.

He said the fact that some of the documents contained Russian names in their metadata did not mean that Russia did it because that kind of information was easy to plant in order to try to confuse investigators.

“If you come back from work and you see your window broken, you walk inside and you see a business card that says ‘Aleksander Yampolskiy’ - it doesn’t mean that it was me”, he said.

He added that investigators should publish all the details of the attack so that cyber security experts could conduct a “peer review” of their findings, in the same way that scientists treat each other’s research in academia.

Trend Micro, a Japanese-based firm which linked Russia to earlier French and German hacks, also said the evidence in this case was inconclusive.

“The techniques they’ve [the Macron attackers] used in this case seem to be similar to previous [Russian-linked] attacks. [But] without further evidence, it is extremely difficult to attribute this hack to any particular person or group”, Trend Micro said in a statement to EUobserver on Tuesday.

Strike back?

Amid the lack of certainty, Sirota and Yampolskiy said talk of striking back at Russia or other suspects was premature.

Sirota said “the amount of evidence you would need to go on the offensive would be quite significant”.

“Unless you’re absolutely certain, it’s hugely risky for a country to do that”, he said.

Yampolskiy said the “hack-back” approach was too dangerous because it could achieve nothing and could start a cyber war.

Destroying foreign-based servers, he said, could not guarantee that the stolen information had not been copied and also stored elsewhere.

“If you go after servers in foreign countries, make sure you don’t live in a glass house”, he added.

“Think about the reaction. The [cyber] infrastructure that we operate, at least in the US, is pretty vulnerable … government infrastructure in many countries is not in good shape. If we could do it to them, think what they could do to us”.

Yampolskiy said one other way for politicians to protect themselves against leaks of compromising material was not to compromise themselves in the first place.

"If you've done nothing wrong, you've got nothing to hide", he said.

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