A last-minute attempt to sabotage the French presidential election

The Washington Post reports: The French campaign watchdog on Saturday began investigating the “massive and coordinated piracy action” that presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron reported just minutes before the official end of campaigning in the most heated election for the presidency that France has seen in decades.

Late on Friday, the Macron campaign said in a statement that it had been the victim of a major hacking operation that saw thousands of emails and other internal communications dumped into the public domain.

At the end of a high-stakes race, the news quickly stoked fears of a targeted operation meant to destabilize the electoral process, especially after reports of Russian hacking in the U.S. presidential election.

Macron, an independent centrist, is facing off against the far-right populist ­and National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who for years has benefitted from considerable Russian financial support and from favorable coverage in state-run Russian media. Voters are set to decide Sunday which candidate becomes France’s next president.

“Intervening in the last hour of the official campaign, this operation is obviously a democratic destabilization, as has already been seen in the United States during the last presidential campaign,” the Macron campaign said.

It was not immediately clear who was being blamed for the hacking, which the campaign said had led to the leaking of documents via social media networks. [Continue reading…]

Reuters reports: Ben Nimmo, a UK-based security researcher with the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Atlantic Council think tank, said initial analysis indicated that a group of U.S. far-right online activists were behind early efforts to spread the documents via social media. They were later picked up and promoted by core social media supporters of Le Pen in France, Nimmo said.

The leaks emerged on 4chan, a discussion forum popular with far right activists in the United States. An anonymous poster provided links to the documents on Pastebin, saying, “This was passed on to me today so now I am giving it to you, the people.”

The hashtag #MacronLeaks was then spread by Jack Posobiec, a pro-Trump activist whose Twitter profile identifies him as Washington D.C. bureau chief of the far-right activist site Rebel TV, according to Nimmo and other analysts tracking the election. Contacted by Reuters, Posobiec said he had simply reposted what he saw on 4chan.

“You have a hashtag drive that started with the alt-right in the United States that has been picked up by some of Le Pen’s most dedicated and aggressive followers online,” Nimmo told Reuters.

Vitali Kremez, director of research with New York-based cyber intelligence firm Flashpoint, told Reuters his review indicates that APT 28, a group tied to the GRU, the Russian military intelligence directorate, was behind the leak. He cited similarities with U.S. election hacks that have been previously attributed to that group.

APT28 last month registered decoy internet addresses to mimic the name of En Marche, which it likely used send tainted emails to hack into the campaign’s computers, Kremez said. Those domains include onedrive-en-marche.fr and mail-en-marche.fr.

“If indeed driven by Moscow, this leak appears to be a significant escalation over the previous Russian operations aimed at the U.S. presidential election, expanding the approach and scope of effort from simple espionage efforts towards more direct attempts to sway the outcome,” Kremez said. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: In April, a report by the cybersecurity firm Trend Micro said there was evidence that the campaign was targeted in March by what appeared to be the same Russian operatives who were responsible for hacks of Democratic campaign officials before last year’s American presidential election. [Continue reading…]

Zeynep Tufekci writes: Hacking and releasing all internal documents and private communication of one campaign is a form of political sabotage, and it may be more potent than you expect. There won’t be time to prove or debunk anything but the confusion will spread. This isn’t whistleblowing meant to shed light on the operations of power. The goal is to frustrate, not persuade, and to create doubt, confusion and paralysis.

In the United States, many reporters had great difficulty resisting the lure of the uncurated dump from the Clinton campaign. I watched on Twitter as they spent a lot of time digging up emails about themselves and colleagues, and chuckling and snarking over it. There were just six weeks left before a consequential election in the United States, but they couldn’t take their eyes of all this candy, Most of the stuff was mundane. There were a few items of public interest — vastly outweighed by juicy, juicy gossip. A lot of this gossip made its way to major newspapers, even their front pages. Important issues got buried. We got very few stories before the election, for example, about the unprecedented conflicts-of-interest that would be posed by a presidency of a businessman with vast holdings all over the world, and a name that he licenses to commercial buildings.

It’s true that there is barely more than a day left until your election, but such fixation with the gossipy side of politics can cripple reporters’ attention after the election too. Editors will be tempted to assign many reporters to dig through the whole dump, and reporters may find themselves mentioned.

There are a lot of things you probably should be reporting on after the election, and the day will still be 24 hours. Editors and reporters should not just follow the candy that has been deliberately dumped in front of them. It’s hard to resist such temptation, but in an age when censorship operates by distracting us from what’s important, it is crucial to consider what’s essential and what is deliberate ploys at distraction. Consider carefully the opportunity cost of assigning large numbers of reporters to search through the dump. In this day of shrinking newspaper budgets, what else are you not covering? What does it mean to rifle through one side’s internal communication, while completely silent on the other, unhacked counterpart?

My advice for traditional media simple, but hard to follow: when reporting, have a laser sharp eye on news truly in the public interest: gross misconduct; major corruption; criminal actions. Before reporting on information from a hack, ask yourself this: would you go to great lengths to find a way to hack or leak this information if it wasn’t just conveniently dumped in front of you? If not, it’s probably not newsworthy enough to report on.

And while reporting, don’t forget the bigger story: this was an act of political sabotage, asymmetric releasing of all internal assets of only one campaign. The political sabotage itself is news, and it should be covered as news—and not just after the fact. [Continue reading…]

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