Lessons In Combatting Cyber-Sabotage From The Macron Leaks

The French election on May 7 was monitored for interference more closely than usual. Yet, hackers targeted a liberal candidate to benefit the far-right candidate in a situation all too familiar after the recent US election. In this case, Emmanuel Macron became the victim of #MacronLeaks, a mass release of genuine campaign documents and falsified records that were distributed via Twitter and other social media sites. Macron managed to prevail regardless, defeating Marine Le Pen and taking 66.1 percent of the final vote.

Despite the additional global interest in this election, voter turnout within France was low. Only 65.3 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, the lowest turnout since 1969. 9 percent of those were blank “protest” ballots. Those voting for Macron echoed phrases heard from Clinton voters during the election in the United States:

“There was no choice… You’re not going to vote for the extremist.”

“Mostly I voted against Le Pen.”

Rather than voting for a candidate and his or her platform, the overall tone appeared to be an aversion to the greater of two evils. Still, the majority did oppose Le Pen, despite the cyber leaks.

In the United States, the Hillary Clinton email leak and Democratic National Convention hack have been definitively linked back to APT 28, also known as Fancy Bear. APT 28 is a hacker group tied to the GRU, the Russian military intelligence unit. En Marche!, Macron’s political party, claim that similarities between the hacks point towards interference from the same group in the Macron leak, though Moscow denies any involvement.

There is also a possibility that Brexit was influenced by foreign hackers. The official voter registration site crashed, potentially leaving thousands of people unable to participate, and a committee set up to investigate later commented that “the crash had indications of being a distributed denial of service [DDoS] attack.” While no accusations were made by the committee, the possibility of foreign interference along with both Russia and China’s history of similar attacks were specifically noted in their report.

It is difficult to estimate how much these hacks affected the results of the American presidential election or the Brexit vote, but very few people would argue they had no influence whatsoever. Hackers deliberately spread biased information to smear specific candidates or ideas – which had the ultimate effect of aiding Russian interests abroad. Therefore, it benefits us all to examine the French election closely to see which factors may have helped Macron rise above this sabotage and triumph regardless.

First, Macron had the obvious advantage of history. The Clinton case acted as a warning lesson for Macron’s campaign, especially due to the close similarities in situations. Clinton was consistently accused of negligence and obscuring the truth following the leaks, so the En Marche! staff knew that it was important to be seen as competent and completely candid regarding all details of their hack.

Not only did they come forward immediately with the fact that many of the files were genuine while some had been wholly invented, but they also released a statement a month earlier reporting that there had been phishing attempts made against the campaign. This proactive statement aided their case by showing that they were aware of potential security breaches and doing everything possible to prevent them.

They also responded astonishingly quickly, something the hackers perhaps weren’t prepared for. Additionally, they were aided by a French law prohibiting media coverage of anything that might affect the election within the 24 hours leading up. The information dump occurred just hours before the campaign media ban went into place and En Marche! managed to get their side of the story out in those few hours. They realised what had occurred and released a statement pointing out that the hack was intended “to sow doubt and misinformation… this operation is clearly a matter of democratic destabilization, as was seen in the United States during the last presidential campaign.” This statement became the final word, as news outlets weren’t able to cover anything further regarding the hack.

Finally, the French presidential electoral system of a two-vote series also helped impress upon voters the importance of their turnout against Le Pen. The system relies on two votes. In the first, voters may cast their ballot for any candidate currently standing. From that vote, the top two candidates are selected and a second vote is held between the two. Unlike in the United States, where the two presidential candidates are selected by the party, the whole country votes to select which two candidates from any party emerge as frontrunners. In this case, Le Pen and Macron were selected, with 21.5 percent and 23.7 percent respectively. As predicted, Macron was the frontrunner, but not by anywhere near the margin expected. This helped give liberal voters a wake-up call that Le Pen was a very real contender in advance of the actual presidential election.

It still isn’t a complete success for the left in France, however. Le Pen still managed a far healthier showing than would have been conceivable in 2002, when her party National Front was last in the second round of voting. She obtained more than ten million votes, promising an anti-EU and pro-nationalist platform that was designed to appeal to those in areas with high unemployment rates and low wages. Le Pen has made some attempts to soften the National Front since she took over from her father in 2011, but it remains a proponent of some intensely xenophobic policies.

There also still remains the upcoming French Parliamentary elections, where some analysts predict that the National Front will take up to 100 of the House’s 577 seats. This would make them a formidable bloc of anti-EU sentiment in French domestic politics and give Le Pen considerable leverage.

Globally, people should take as many lessons from the French election as possible. Given the present record of Moscow, it seems likely that, in the case of an election which has the potential to significantly benefit Russia, there will be cyber-sabotage designed to influence the vote. It seems unlikely that Facebook or Twitter will be able and willing to combat the spread of false information, which means it falls to traditional media and individuals to more carefully examine the news they give a platform. Without traditional media spreading the #MacronLeaks, they fizzled, despite their proliferation across Twitter. Liberal candidates also need to stay on top of their security and remain completely transparent with the public to maintain trust.