PARIS — French presidential front-runner Emmanuel Macron tried to build a hack-proof campaign with a detailed plan for preventing a breach.
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His campaign confirmed late Friday that it was the victim of a “massive and coordinated” cyberattack hours after a large trove of emails purportedly from his political party appeared online, just two days before the country’s decisive presidential runoff.
The news of the hack — which supporters of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and people associated with the United States’ alt-right movement promoted on social media under the hashtag "#macronleaks" — added a surprise twist to the closing moments of a divisive race. And it revived dreadful memories for some U.S. Democrats, whose party fell prey last year to politically timed leaks of hacked emails that intelligence agencies linked to Russia.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Saturday that the reported hacking of Macron’s campaign raises a potential "nightmare scenario," pointing to allegations by Macron’s campaign that some of the dumped material may be forgeries. Democrats made similar warnings last year over the hacked emails that appeared on sites such as WikiLeaks, although they never proved that any of the documents were actually fake.
"While we are still awaiting confirmation from French officials that there are indeed forgeries being dumped along with authentic stolen documents, this would represent yet another dangerous escalation of cyber interference in a Western nation’s democracy," Schiff said in a statement.
The latest leaked emails look intended to influence Sunday’s French election and aftermath. As in last year’s contest in the U.S. fingers immediately pointed toward hacker groups linked to the Russian government, which has embraced Le Pen. Coming less than 48 hours before voting starts and with Macron up by 20 percentage points in the last polls, it’s hard to predict what impact, if any, it may have.
Complicating matters, the French campaign is now in a weekend blackout period that means the candidates or the media aren’t likely to discuss or delve into the emails, which seem to include communications between staffers and documents. The trove has yet to yield any bombshell revelation, and the immediate impact of the release on Saturday morning was to sow confusion over what was in it and what it might mean.
The French election commission issued a direct call to all media not to report on the content of the leaks. It would meet later on Saturday after Macron’s campaign informed it about the hack and the publication online of the data.
The French government has blocked the 4chan messaging group where this first appeared for IP addresses based in France. An interior ministry official declined to comment to Reuters, citing the rules that forbid commentary liable to influence an election.
In a lengthy statement, Macron’s party En Marche said “the files circulating were obtained several weeks ago thanks to the hacking of personal and professional email boxes of several leaders of the party.” It accused the hackers of adding fake documents to real ones “in order to sow doubt and disinformation.”
“This is not a simple pirating operation but indeed an attempt to destabilize the French presidential election,” the campaign said. “It therefore makes sense to consider the nature of the leaked documents, to be aware that a large part of them are purely and simply forgeries and a chance to amplify this attempt at destabilization.”
During the presidential debate Thursday, Le Pen insinuated that something of this nature would occur in the final dash of the campaign. She said, without offering any proof, that Macron had offshore bank accounts. French prosecutors opened an investigation this week into whether fake news was being circulated in a bid to influence the presidential election.
Neither the National Front campaign nor its online teams have discussed the emails publicly. In a tweet late Friday night, party Vice President Florian Philippot wondered whether #macronleaks would reveal things that the media was deliberately ignoring. “Terrifying this democratic shipwreck,” he said in a message retweeted over a thousand times.
The Macron campaign had taken unprecedented measures to avoid breaches. The campaign’s digital director signaled just a few days ago that no hack had been successful, as web analytics firm Trend Micro identified the source of hacking attempts as the same Russian outfit that tapped into the emails of the Democratic National Committee in the U.S.
Macron’s digital campaign director Mounir Mahjoubi said last month that staffers had been under constant attack since last December with thousands of attempts registered each month. He said the attribution to a Russian-backed hacker group confirmed the campaign’s intuitions, calling for a full investigation into the hack’s origins that he said could not take place during the election campaign.
Staffers told POLITICO they were briefed extensively on cybersecurity procedures, including instructions to signal the smallest sign of breach, which would trigger a password-changing protocol for the entire campaign staff. Staffers said they individually received multiple phishing attempts — false emails that get the user to give up their password and inadvertently provide access to the account to hackers
Nicolas Vanderbiest, a Belgian researcher on social media influence, told French daily Libération that Wikileaks “clearly played in role” in propagating the leaks online. Twitter users associated with the transparency organization were among the first to start disseminating the material Friday night, he said. These same accounts were also central in spreading the accusation that Macron had a secret bank account in the Bahamas — a claim the presidential candidate has flatly denied and against which he has filed a legal complaint.
Pierre Briançon and Emmet Livingstone contributed reporting.