Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Is Russia-Backed ‘Fake News’ Now Being Used in French Elections?

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Is Russia-Backed ‘Fake News’ Now Being Used in French Elections?

Experts caution that a Kremlin-backed disinformation campaign thought to have been carried out during the 2016 United States election may now be plaguing France. 


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French presidential candidate Macron targeted by hackers, cyber firm says

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French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron's campaign was targeted in recent weeks by hackers using methods similar to the hacks in the United States targeting the Democratic National Committee last year, according to a new report by cybersecurity researchers.
Tokyo-based cybersecurity firm Trend Micro says it discovered four Web domain names that were very similar to the domain names of the Macron campaign -- presumably to try to trick careless campaign workers into accidentally compromising their email accounts. For example, a fake domain called mail-en-marche.fr was set up on April 12. Macron's party is "En Marche!"
The firm was unable to tell whether any campaign staffers actually fell into any traps, or whether any campaign materials were compromised. Macron campaign aide Benjamin Haddad said the campaign was aware of the report, but did not say whether the campaign had actually detected any hacking.
A French official told CNN that French intelligence services are warning campaigns to take steps to prevent being targeted by hackers.
Feike Hacquebord with Trend Micro told CNN he could not say whether the hackers were Russian. But he said the M.O. was the similar to that of the DNC hackers -- who US intelligence officials say are linked to Russian intelligence.
Hacking culprits can be difficult to track back and identify with certainty. But cybersecurity experts say French institutions have previously been targeted by hackers with ties to Russia. For example, when the broadcaster TV5 Monde was hacked in 2015, researchers at cybersecurity firm FireEye said it was carried out by Russian-backed hackers from the Russian-backed unit APT28.
"Russian intelligence have certainly been hacking inside France, and will continue to do so," said Columbia University's Jason Healey. "The attacks that Russia used against the US -- of getting hold of embarrassing information and releasing it -- I'd say the French are very open to such things."
Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied any interest in interfering with the elections in France.
But analysts say Putin would have good reason to favor conservative nationalist Marine Le Pen over centrist Macron in the upcoming runoff election.
"Le Pen has been very open about her desire to have better relations with Russia, she's an outspoken opponent of sanctions [against Russia], and she's interested in taking France outside of NATO," said Will Pomeranz at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. "She has a very populist right-wing message that plays to Putin's narratives -- it undermines Western institutions."
Le Pen visited Moscow a month ago to meet with Putin, at a time when other Western candidates would not want to be seen shaking hands with him.
Former Asst. Sec. of State David J. Kramer, now with the McCain Institute in Washington, says the two also have a number of things in common: a focus on national sovereignty, a distrust for international institutions, a keen focus on fighting Islamic terrorism, an embrace of traditional values and a vigorous style.
"They share this desire for strong leadership not encumbered by checks and balances. They want to get things done, go after common enemies," he said.
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Is Russia-Backed 'Fake News' Now Being Used in French Elections?

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In the days, weeks and months leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a coordinated network of automated social media profiles known as “bots” helped spread what has become known as “fake news” — a term that was popularized once the intelligence community announced their consensus belief that the Kremlin interfered with the election to an unprecedented degree.
Now, experts are looking to the upcoming 7 May 2017 French election runoff with fear that the Russian government is using the same methods that succeeded in fomenting information chaos in the U.S. could similarly disrupt other high-stakes contests in Western democracies.
Experts say the Kremlin aims to weaken such countries from the inside out by waging disinformation campaigns that exploit existing social tensions and promote mistrust in institutions of government and knowledge. Most recently, they have done so with what intelligence experts call “active measures” or cyber activities that spread disinformation to support anti-establishment candidates — like President Donald Trump and France’s extreme-right candidate Marine Le Pen. Such candidates have been buoyed by growing nativist and protectionist sentiments from current global trends in migration that have created an anti-immigrant climate in Europe, the United States and other relatively stable countries where people have in large numbers sought refuge from violence and war in places like Syria.
Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee on the Russian hack, Clint Watts, a former FBI counterterrorism agent and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, described Russia’s aims with these activities:
Russian active measures hope to topple democracies through the pursuit of five complementary objectives: One, undermine citizen confidence in democratic governance; two, foment, exacerbate divisive political fissures; three, erode trust between citizens and elected officials and their institutions; four, popularize Russian policy agendas within foreign populations; and five, create general distrust or confusion over information sources by blurring the lines between fact and fiction — a very pertinent issue today in our country.
From these objectives the Kremlin can crumble democracies from the inside out, achieving two key milestones: One, the disillusion of the European Union; and two, the break-up of NATO.
Already, Americans may recognize familiar patterns emerging across the Atlantic Ocean. Kremlin-backed news agency Sputnik’s chief Paris bureau editor Nataliya Novikova advocated her own version of “alternative facts” when quoted in a 17 April 2017 New York Times report about Russia elbowing its way into French politics by saying, “There are many different truths. There has to be a pluralism of truth.”
The Wall Street Journal reported on 24 April 2017 that the campaign of Le Pen’s chief opponent, Emmanuel Macron, has been targeted by a pro-Kremlin hacking group with a phishing infiltration attempt similar to the one that penetrated Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta’s e-mail system:
As part of the attack, hackers set up multiple internet addresses that mimicked those of the campaign’s own servers in an attempt to lure Mr. Macron’s staffers into turning over their network passwords, said Feike Hacquebord, a senior threat researcher for Tokyo-based Trend Micro and the author of the report, a copy of which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Mounir Mahjoubi, digital director of Mr. Macron’s campaign, confirmed the attempted hacking, saying that several staffers had received emails leading to the fake websites. The phishing emails were quickly identified and blocked, and it was unlikely others went undetected, Mr. Mahjoubi said.
An Oxford University study published on 22 April 2017 found that French voters are being hit with automated political content generated by “bots” like Americans were — but French social media users are more likely to share legitimate news stories. Yet the “junk news” making the rounds in France, according to the study, has a political agenda:
This content [junk news] includes various forms of propaganda and ideologically extreme, hyper-partisan, or conspiratorial political news and information. Much of this content is deliberately produced false reporting. It seeks to persuade readers about the moral virtues or failings of organizations, causes or people and presents commentary as a news product. This content is produced by organizations that do not employ professional journalists, and the content uses
attention grabbing techniques, lots of pictures, moving images, excessive capitalization, ad hominem attacks, emotionally charged words and pictures, unsafe generalizations and other logical fallacies.
After Macron and Le Pen emerged as the frontrunners in the upcoming runoff, their former opponents united in opposition to Le Pen and extremism, but as the New York Times reports, her National Front party has grown in influence — much like relatively extreme viewpoints of both Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and now-President Trump surged unexpectedly in 2016. Defeated center-right Républicains party candidate François Fillon said, “Extremism can only bring unhappiness and division. There is no choice but to vote against the far right.”
Bob Murray, a national security fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told us that bots coordinate fake news and propaganda by drumming up noise on social media and forcing a topic to trend, which then causes the news media to respond. It results in a chain reaction of disinformation bouncing between bot accounts, Kremlin-backed news agencies like Sputnik and RT that spread propaganda, then finding its way to what intelligence experts call “white” and “gray” sites, or English-language conspiratorial web sites like InfoWars or Zero Hedge — then, sometimes, to the mainstream news.
These web sites, Murray said, may not even be aware they are sharing the Kremlin’s propaganda or disinformation, but have a general disregard for the truth and are reliable tools for such purposes.
White sites are in the context of fake news, sites that don’t have an agenda of pushing fake news but are incidental messangers — like Breitbart will pick up news stories that aren’t validated, that they haven’t done due diligence [reporting] on, so they end up being propagators of fake news.
Gray sites are sites that carry a mix of real news of fake news and they have some propensity to deliberately push fake news as part of the entertainment value of the site — like InfoWars is something that will push news for a political agenda if not for entertainment and where truthfulness is secondary to throwing red meat to the base.
According to McClatchy, FBI investigators are reviewing the roles that far-right web sites in the U.S. played in facilitating Russia’s propaganda campaign:
Operatives for Russia appear to have strategically timed the computer commands, known as “bots,” to blitz social media with links to the pro-Trump stories at times when the billionaire businessman was on the defensive in his race against Democrat Hillary Clinton, these sources said.
The bots’ end products were largely millions of Twitter and Facebook posts carrying links to stories on conservative internet sites such as Breitbart News and InfoWars, as well as on the Kremlin-backed RT News and Sputnik News, the sources said. Some of the stories were false or mixed fact and fiction, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the bot attacks are part of an FBI-led investigation into a multifaceted Russian operation to influence last year’s elections.
Investigators examining the bot attacks are exploring whether the far-right news operations took any actions to assist Russia’s operatives. Their participation, however, wasn’t necessary for the bots to amplify their news through Twitter and Facebook.
Murray stressed that while far-right politicians appear to have benefited from Russian hacking efforts in 2016 and possibly 2017 elections, the Kremlin doesn’t favor either political agenda. Instead, its primary goal is destabilization:
The use of the sites certainly is apolitical — it’s politically agnostic, it’s a tool. The Russians are not interested in one party or the other, it’s more about the delegitimization of democratic institutions and Western multinational institutions. I’m sure they have contingency plans regardless of who wins.
Murray called the global push that played out in the United States and seems to be repeating in France “scary” — perhaps the dark logical conclusion of what has become an unavoidably technology-heavy society.
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Russia suspected of Macron hack

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Russian intelligence is suspected of having tried to hack the campaign of Emmanuel Macron, the pro-EU candidate in the French election.
The attack was carried out by Pawn Storm, a cyber group with the same digital fingerprints as the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service, according to a 40-page report by Trend Micro, a Tokyo-based firm, that was published on Tuesday (25 April).
The report said Pawn Storm set up four fake websites designed to steal email passwords from people in Macron’s political movement, En Marche! (Marching forward!).
The same group, which is also known as Fancy Bear, APT28, and Sednit, was previously responsible for hacking Democratic Party emails in the US election, for attacking the CDU party of German chancellor Angela Merkel, and French broadcaster TV5 Monde, Trend Micro said.
Tuesday’s report will also detail its attempt to hack the Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung in Germany, a Merkel-linked political foundation, the Japanese firm added.
Guillaume Poupard, the head of France’s digital security service, Anssi, told the Reuters news agency on Monday that it was too early to name Russia as the culprit.
Trend Micro also declined to name Russia, but the firm’s Feike Hacquebord told Reuters: “We have seen that phishing [fake] sites were set up and that the fingerprints were really the same ... as in the DNC [US Democratic Party] breach”.
US intelligence services last year said the Pawn Storm group was a GRU front and that the US election hack was personally ordered by Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Fire Eye, a US cyber consultancy, in January also fingerprinted Russia in the TV5 Monde hack.
Mounir Mahjoubi, who runs Macron’s digital operations, told the AP news agency on Monday that it was fair to “suppose” Russian involvement due to the timing of the attack - in the middle of the French presidential campaign.
He described it as the “invisible” side of Russia’s anti-Macron operation, alongside overt attacks by Russian state media.
He said Pawn Storm’s fake websites were “pixel perfect … That means there was talent behind it and time went into it: talent, money, experience, time, and will.”
He said “nothing was compromised”, however.
He added that Anssi had given En Marche! the information that it needed to spot Pawn Storm attacks and that the French security agency got the information from the US election hack.
Macron beat Russia’s preferred candidate, the far-right Marine Le Pen, in the first round of the presidential election last Sunday.
The two will hold a run-off on 7 May in a vote that could destabilise the EU in the event of a Le Pen victory.
News of the GRU-suspected attack on Macron comes amid an anti-Macron campaign by Russian-state media, including its French-language outlets RT France and Sputnik France.
Russian media have circulated unsubstantiated claims, for instance, that he had had a gay love affair, that he was an agent of US banks, and that he was financed by Saudi Arabia.
The content was propagated by Russian bots, or automated social media accounts, some of which posted material over 750 times a day.
The same media favoured Le Pen, whose party has borrowed at least €11 million from Russia and who met Putin in Moscow last month.
Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, brushed aside Trend Micro’s findings on Monday.
"What [hacking] groups? From where? Why Russia? This slightly reminds me of accusations from Washington, which have been left hanging in mid-air until now and do not do their authors any credit”, he told press in Moscow.
But Russian media this week continued to paint Macron in a negative light.
Russia's First Channel TV broadcaster described his victory banquet on Sunday as "bohemian", while saying that Le Pen was a “candidate of the people”.
Dmitry Kiselyov, a Russian TV anchor, said the French state was plotting to stop Le Pen from winning.
Leading Russian MPs and senators, Konstantin Kosachyov and Alexey Pushkov, also said on Facebook and Twitter that the EU had bullied French voters into picking Macron and that he was Merkel’s puppet.

Macron Victim of Cyber Attack Similar to U.S. Democratic Party’s

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French presidential front-runner Emmanuel Macron has been hit repeatedly in recent weeks by cyber attacks closely resembling those used to infiltrate Democratic Party organizations in the U.S. last year, according to a report by cyber-security consultant Trend Micro.
Trend Micro attributed the attacks to Pawn Storm, which it described as an "active cyber espionage actor group" that has carried out such hits in more than a dozen countries. The French government’s cyber-security agency ANSSI confirmed it has identified such attacks, saying it was “a classic modus operandi of Pawn Storm.” It, however, said the attacks could also be the work “other high-level” hackers trying to pin the operations on Pawn Storm.
Some cyber-security experts have linked Pawn Storm to Russian intelligence services, but Trend Micro has no proof of Russia’s involvement, said Loïc Guéza, a Paris-based cyber-security strategist for the company.
Macron, who faces a May 7 election runoff against the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, has complained previously that Russian state news agencies have tried to disrupt his campaign with fake news reports. Last month, Macron was hit by a fake-news hoax in which a bogus website resembling the site of Belgian newspaper Le Soir reported that Saudi Arabia was financing his campaign.
Between mid-March and mid-April, Pawn Storm hackers set up at least five fake websites resembling those of Macron’s campaign site, Guéza said.

Major Damage

Emails were sent from the sites to people connected to the campaign, with attachments that would plant spyware on their computers if opened. The technique, known as spearphishing, can cause major damage. That’s what happened last year when hackers released a trove of emails that cast the Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in an unfavorable light. The U.S. is now investigating possible Russian involvement in that case.
Polls suggest Macron would beat Le Pen in the runoff by at least 20 percentage points. The front-runner, who takes a tougher stance on Russia than Le Pen, has charged Kremlin-controlled media outlets with spreading baseless news about him. In March, Le Pen, who favors lifting sanctions against Russia, traveled to Moscow and was received by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Macron aides said they don’t think the attacks on his campaign have succeeded.
Aurore Berge, a campaign adviser, said that campaign staff members "hardly use any email," banking instead on encrypted messaging services for most digital communication.
In an interview published Monday on French news website Silicon.fr , Mounir Mahjoubi, Macron’s director of digital operations, said hackers had "gathered all the names, public or semi-public, associated with the team of [Macron’s campaign] and targeted all of them."

Fake Logins

However, Mahjoubi told Silicon.fr that the campaign had taken measures to prevent spyware infection from such emails, and even counter-attacked the hackers, "by sending them massive numbers of fake logins and passwords." Calls by Bloomberg to Mahjoubi were not answered.
According to Trend Micro, other targets of Pawn Storm include German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party, which was attacked in May and June 2016, and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a foundation associated with the CDU, hit earlier this month.

Russian hackers targeted campaign of French moderate candidate

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Hackers linked to the same Russian military unit that hacked Democratic computers in the United States during last year’s election also have sought to penetrate the networks of a leading candidate in France’s presidential elections, a leading cybersecurity firm says.
Researchers from Trend Micro, a global security software company, said Monday that Russian hackers took aim last month at the networks of Emmanuel Macron, a centrist who advocates a strong pan-European stance to combat meddling by Moscow.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin openly favors Macron’s opponent, Marine Le Pen, a far-right candidate who’s faced allegations that her campaign received Russian financing. Le Pen and Putin share antipathy toward the European Union.
Macron and Le Pen were the top vote-getters in Sunday’s first-round presidential elections, and will face one another in a runoff May 7.
The hackers who went after Macron are the same ones who penetrated the networks of the Democratic National Committee in 2015-16 and hacked emails of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, which were later published by WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy group, Trend Micro experts said.
The Russian hacking group is known by many names, including Fancy Bear, Pawn Storm, APT28, Strontium and Sofacy. Another cybersecurity group, ThreatConnect, says the hackers are linked to the GRU, an elite Russian military intelligence unit.
Trend Micro is to issue a comprehensive report on the group Tuesday, but experts there spoke in advance to describe the hacking group’s actions in the French elections.
A Dutch analyst for Trend Micro, Feike Hacquebord, said in an email that the hackers had set up fake internet domains on March 15 and on April 12, 14 and 17 that were similar to ones used by Macron’s En Marche! party or his official campaign.
The intent, he said, was that hackers could send “spearphishing” emails to people associated with the campaign and lure them to click on safe-sounding links that would allow hackers to get a foothold in networks.
They don’t give up easily. Like the name suggests, Pawn Storm will attack from different sides.
Feike Hacquebord, threat researcher at Trend Micro
“We did notify French authorities. Generally speaking, Pawn Storm is known to have very good social engineering skills,” Hacquebord said, referring to the GRU-affiliated unit by his company’s name for it. “They don’t give up easily. Like the name suggests, Pawn Storm will attack from different sides.”
Trend Micro gave the group the name Pawn Storm two years ago after a strategy in chess in which a player moves pawns in quick succession toward an opponent’s defenses.
It is not known whether the Russian hackers succeeded in gaining a foothold in the Macron campaign’s networks.
Hacquebord said a single registrant unrelated to Macron’s campaign had set up the domain names onedrive-en-marche.fr, portal-office.fr, mail-en-march.fr and accounts-office.fr – all designed to appear connected to his campaign or to the Microsoft cloud services it uses.
“They increase the likelihood that their targets will fall for the phishing with excellent social engineering, precise targeting and by registering domain names that are very similar to the domains of the legitimate Macron campaign and Microsoft services,” Hacquebord said.
The hackers went to the trouble of getting certificates so the disguised sites appeared even more legitimate and used encryption.
It’s definitely a shift in their strategy.
Ed Cabrera, chief cybersecurity officer for Trend Micro
“They take a great amount of energy to be able to disguise their attacks. It’s definitely a shift in their strategy,” said Ed Cabrera, chief cybersecurity officer for Trend Micro, which was founded in Los Angeles but now has its headquarters in Tokyo.
The hacking group also appears to be ramping up targeting of the German political establishment. Hacquebord said the Russian hackers had set up or activated domains this month to launch attacks on two prominent think tanks, Konrad Adenauer and Friedrich Ebert, foundations linked, respectively, with the Christian Democratic and Social Democratic parties. The German general elections are in September.
Macron’s campaign manager, Richard Ferrand, complained bitterly in February of “hundreds if not thousands of attacks” on the campaign’s computer networks.
During the campaign, Russian media strongly attacked Macron, a former investment banker, accusing him of being a “fraud” and a tool of the U.S. banking industry.
“What we want is for authorities at the highest level to take the matter in hand to guarantee that there is no foreign meddling in our democracy. The Americans saw it but it came too late,” Ferrand said, according to a Reuters report at the time.
U.S. intelligence agencies said in a report Jan. 6 that Russian state hackers, under direction from the Kremlin, had broken into networks of the Democratic Party and into emails of Clinton campaign officials in 2016 with the aim of assisting Donald Trump’s campaign.
Putin has dismissed the charges. After initially rejecting any Russian involvement in the hacking, Trump acknowledged earlier this year that Russia was responsible. The FBI is leading an investigation into the Russian meddling, and several committees on Capitol Hill also are conducting probes.
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