A team of cyber-security experts in Japan are "99 per cent" sure that phishing attacks on French liberal candidate Emmanuel Macron's campaign are coming from Russia.
The Macron campaign has been attacked several times through fake news and hacking attempts over the last few months, and Japanese cyber-security firm Trend Micro believes that Pawn Storm, a Russian cyber-spying group, is responsible for them.
Trend Micro released a report named 'From Espionage to Cyber Propaganda: Pawn Storm's Activities over the Past Two Years', in which it alleged that Pawn Storm's principle focus is on geopolitics and to achieve that aim, the group attacks armed forces, the defence industry, news media, and politicians. At the same time, “the group attempted to influence public opinion, to influence elections, and sought contact with mainstream media with some success,” the report added.
The latest target of Pawn Storm is Emmanuel Macron, who is not only leading the race for the next French President, but is also opposed to Russian politics, especially in Syria. Unlike Macron, Marine Le Pen, his strongest competitor, is sympathetic to Russians and her campaign has not faced sustained cyber-attacks so far.
Macron's campaign managers are aware of the threat, and recently met officials at ANSSI, the official French cyber-security branch which operates under the French defence ministry. Following the meeting, the Macron campaign hired Mounir Mahjoubi, who previously served as the head of the French National Digital Council, to take control of the campaign's cyber-security arm.
Unlike most campaign officials who accuse Russia of perpetrating cyber-attacks, Mahjoubi recently said to French weekly Journal du Dimanche that while Russian media houses like Russia Today and Sputnik are launching frontal attacks on Macron, he was not aware where the cyber-attacks came from.
"Emmanuel Macron is the only candidate in the French presidential campaign to be targeted. It's no coincidence if Emmanuel Macron, the last remaining progressive candidate in this election, is the priority target," said Macron's campaign team while revealing that at least five advanced cyber-attack operations were conducted on the campaign's websites. However, they also claimed that none of the cyber-attacks had so far succeeded.
According to Trend Micro, hackers at Pawn Storm have created phishing domains to steal passwords of candidates or to install viruses in computers. "This group set up a specific infrastructure to target Emmanuel Macron’s movement in March and April 2017," said Loïc Guézo, strategy director for southern Europe at Trend Micro to FRANCE 24.
"Hackers can, for example, send an email that seems legitimate, claiming that there is a problem with the recipients' IDs, which must be reentered by clicking on a link that points to an identification page that seems innocent but which actually makes it possible to steal the password,” he said.
With general elections just a week away in the UK, it will be interesting to see if Pawn Storm and other Russian hacker groups will shift their attention from France to the UK. Public sector domains and government servers have been hacked into in the past, so whether they will be able to ward of fresh attacks will determine the strength of cyber-security in the country.