Im­pact of leaked emails

Most French vot­ers shrugged off the hack­ing in­ci­dent.

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY JAMES MCAU­LEY ISAAC STAN­LEY-BECKER james.mcau­ley@wash­post.com

paris — It was only the lat­est plot twist in a long, bit­ter cam­paign de­fined by ran­cor and un­cer­tainty.

The day be­fore France’s most mo­men­tous pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in re­cent his­tory, au­thor­i­ties were still in­ves­ti­gat­ing the “mas­sive and co­or­di­nated piracy ac­tion” that in­de­pen­dent can­di­date Em­manuel Macron re­ported just min­utes be­fore the cam­paign’s of­fi­cial end Fri­day night.

The data dump, the Macron cam­paign said, in­volved thou­sands of non­in­crim­i­nat­ing emails and other in­ter­nal com­mu­ni­ca­tions — some of which, the cam­paign in­sisted, were fake. In a year of pop­ulist up­heaval, this was the night­mare sce­nario for many ob­servers, im­me­di­ately rem­i­nis­cent of the Amer­i­can elec­tion — in which, as U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies re­cently con­cluded, Rus­sian President Vladimir Putin com­mis­sioned an “in­flu­ence cam­paign” to ben­e­fit President Trump.

The iden­tity of the hacker re­mains un­con­firmed, but the par­al­lels were clear enough in Paris and Washington: Macron, an in­de­pen­dent cen­trist can­di­date and staunch de­fender of the Euro­pean Union, is fac­ing off against Marine Le Pen, a far-right pop­ulist whose party has re­lied on Rus­sian banks in the past and who fa­vors piv­ot­ing France’s for­eign pol­icy to­ward the Krem­lin. In March, Le Pen met per­son­ally with Putin on a visit to Moscow.

“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, stop­ping short of as­sign­ing blame.

The sen­ti­ment was echoed across the At­lantic, with Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the rank­ing Demo­crat on the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, warn­ing that the hack­ing, if suc­cess­ful, “would rep­re­sent yet an­other dan­ger­ous es­ca­la­tion of cy­ber in­ter­fer­ence in a Western na­tion’s democ­racy.”

But amid France’s govern­ment-man­dated day of si­lence that al­ways pre­cedes elec­tion day — when can­di­dates are strictly pro­hib­ited from cam­paign­ing in any way — the im­pact of the leaks on the elec­tion re­mained to be seen.

In the French press, the leaks re­ceived com­par­a­tively lit­tle cov­er­age: In keep­ing with French cam­paign law, re­port­ing on the emails’ con­tents could re­sult in crim­i­nal charges. On Satur­day, France’s elec­toral com­mis­sion urged jour­nal­ists and media or­ga­ni­za­tions to heed “the sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity they must demon­strate, as at stake are the free ex­pres­sion of vot­ers and the sin­cer­ity of the elec­tion” it­self.

Ben Nimmo, a re­search fel­low with the At­lantic Coun­cil’s Dig­i­tal Foren­sic Re­search Lab, said in an in­ter­view that en­thu­si­asm for the leaks was scarcely dis­cernible beyond the far-right, pro-Le Pen on­line cir­cles that had cir­cu­lated them in the first place.

“It doesn’t seem at this stage that there are lots of high-pro­file non-Le Pen ac­counts jump­ing in and spreading the mes­sage around,” he said of so­cial-media pat­terns sur­round­ing the leaks. “They have kept their con­stituency — and they have gal­va­nized their con­stituency — but they haven't nec­es­sar­ily stepped out­side of that con­stituency.”

Most French vot­ers in­ter­viewed on the streets of the cap­i­tal the day be­fore the vote shrugged off the hack. The stakes are much too high to be both­ered by com­pro­mis­ing in­ter­nal cam­paign doc­u­ments, they said.

Paul Lotere, a 29-year-old civil ser­vant, said he was most up­set that Macron had no chance to re­spond given the strict cam­paign cur­few. He plans to vote for the for­mer fi­nance and econ­omy min­is­ter and said he has no in­ter­est in the doc­u­ments un­til their ve­rac­ity is con­firmed.

“Ah, yes, ‘hash­tag Macron leaks,’ ” sneered Alain Chap­pot­teau, a 51-year-old psy­chol­o­gist, re­peat­ing the Twit­ter tagline pop­u­lar­iz­ing the news. “With all the fuss, all the tricks, in this cam­paign, what’s one more? I’m vot­ing for my child’s fu­ture. This doesn’t mat­ter.”

Al­though the hacker re­mained un­known, Nimmo said, the so­cial-media cam­paign fol­low­ing the Macron data dump orig­i­nated in the United States, in a well­known net­work of Twit­ter ac­counts used by mem­bers of the alt-right, a small, far-right move­ment that seeks a whites-only state.

The #MacronLeaks Twit­ter storm — no­tably in English, not French — largely be­gan with the ac­count of Jack Poso­biec, a Washington-based cor­re­spon­dent for the alt-right web­site TheRebel.media, Nimmo said. Poso­biec has writ­ten that he served, in 2016, as “Spe­cial Projects Di­rec­tor of Cit­i­zens for Trump, the largest Trump grassroots or­ga­ni­za­tion in the US,” ac­cord­ing to an ar­ti­cle Nimmo wrote on the Macron case.

From there, Nimmo said, news of the Macron leaks — al­legedly con­tain­ing de­tails of off­shore ac­counts and tax eva­sion — was retweeted by Wil­liam Crad­dick, an­other alt-right ac­tivist known to have spread in De­cem­ber a fake news story about Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel tol­er­at­ing Is­lamic State ter­ror­ists to de­ploy an E.U. “army” to sub­due her coun­try's neigh­bors. Even­tu­ally, Nimmo added, the leaks be­gan to be retweeted by well­known Na­tional Front ac­counts — reach­ing 47,000 tweets in just three hours.

De­spite France’s strict pro­hi­bi­tion on cam­paign­ing after the dead­line, Flo­rian Philip­pot, the Na­tional Front's deputy leader, tweeted early Satur­day morn­ing: “Will #Macronleaks teach us some­thing that in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism has de­lib­er­ately killed?”

For months now, Le Pen has also re­ceived ex­ceed­ingly pos­i­tive cov­er­age in Rus­sian state media. Mean­while, those news out­lets have pil­lo­ried Macron, ac­cus­ing him of be­ing se­cretly gay and of em­bez­zling pub­lic funds. To date, most of those ru­mors seem to have had lit­tle ef­fect on French vot­ers.

Through­out the elec­tion, Macron has fre­quently said that his cam­paign has been the tar­get of Rus­sian med­dling, though the Krem­lin has re­peat­edly de­nied those ac­cu­sa­tions.

In a re­port is­sued last month, re­searchers at the cy­ber­se­cu­rity firm Trend Mi­cro linked in­tru­sions into the Macron cam­paign’s on­line net­work to Rus­sian hack­ers op­er­at­ing as an arm of Krem­lin in­tel­li­gence.

The Tokyo-based firm said it was the same group — known var­i­ously as Pawn Storm, APT28 and Fancy Bear — that hacked the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee and of­fi­cials tied to Hil­lary Clin­ton’s un­suc­cess­ful cam­paign for president.

In the spe­cific case of the leaked doc­u­ments, a Rus­sian con­nec­tion was not im­me­di­ately iden­ti­fied. But ac­cord­ing to anal­y­sis con­ducted by Flash­point In­tel, a dig­i­tal risk firm, “it ap­pears to be linked to the Rus­sian state-spon­sored cam­paign by APT28.”

Ni­co­las Van­der­biest, an ex­pert on so­cial-media in­for­ma­tion dis­sem­i­na­tion and the au­thor of the well-known blog “Rep­u­ta­tio Lab,” said in an in­ter­view that there were sig­nif­i­cant con­nec­tions in the Twit­ter storm fol­low­ing the leaks to ac­counts linked to Sput­nik and Rus­sia To­day. In a pa­per pub­lished sev­eral weeks ago, he stud­ied many of th­ese ac­counts, some 40 per­cent of which were in­volved with spreading the news about the Macron scan­dal early Satur­day, he said.

In any case, an­a­lysts say, the French govern­ment has taken the threat of cy­ber­se­cu­rity in the elec­tion very se­ri­ously.

In March, for in­stance, France’s Na­tional Cy­ber­se­cu­rity Agency said that there was “an ex­tremely high risk” of cy­ber­at­tacks and hack­ing of the coun­try’s elec­toral process, which prompted the govern­ment to sus­pend elec­tronic vot­ing this year for French cit­i­zens over­seas.

Alexan­der Klim­burg, an ex­pert on cy­ber­war­fare at the Hague Cen­tre for Se­cu­rity Stud­ies who has been in reg­u­lar con­tact with French civil ser­vice of­fi­cers, said he be­lieves the French govern­ment is suf­fi­ciently pre­pared for Rus­sian cy­ber­at­tacks, es­pe­cially after Rus­sian hack­ers nearly de­stroyed a French tele­vi­sion net­work, TV5Monde, al­most ex­actly two years ago.

“The sense was, ‘If this hap­pens again, we’re go­ing to be ready,’ ” Klim­burg said. “I ex­pect there to be a mas­sive es­ca­la­tion in the covert in­for­ma­tion en­vi­ron­ment.”

Polls show Macron, a for­mer in­vest­ment banker and So­cial­ist fi­nance min­is­ter, with a con­sid­er­able lead over Le Pen, at 63 per­cent to 37 per­cent of the vote, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est anal­y­sis from the Ip­sos firm, re­leased Fri­day.

For many, the hack­ing and sub­se­quent data dump rep­re­sented a des­per­ate, last-dash at­tempt to thwart Macron’s con­sid­er­able lead in the polls — a lead that has ac­tu­ally grown in the fi­nal days of the cam­paign.

“It’s so ob­vi­ous, and you can make all the con­nec­tions so eas­ily,” said Van­der­biest. “It's very ama­teur.”

CHRISTOPHE MORIN/BLOOMBERG NEWS

French pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Em­manuel Macron, cen­ter, waves while walk­ing to a restau­rant in Le Tou­quet, France, on Satur­day ahead of Sunday’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Polls show him with a solid lead.

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