Did Macron hack the hackers, foiling Russian influence on French election?

There is no proof, but cyber offense rather than defense could signal big shift in cybersecurity tactics

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Did the new leader of France win because he out­smart­ed the very hack­ers who tried to tip the scales in last November’s U.S. elec­tion? Secu­ri­ty pro­fes­sion­als are try­ing to sort out this very pos­si­bil­i­ty right now, fol­low­ing a sto­ry­line that sounds right out of a Michael Crich­ton nov­el. It’s going to be hard to sort out the truth of these claims, but then, that’s the point.

Bob Sul­li­van, jour­nal­ist and one of the found­ing mem­bers of msnbc.com

Here’s the rub: There are claims that Emmanuel Macron’s cyber­se­cu­ri­ty folks antic­i­pat­ed a Hillary Clin­ton-like attack from the alleged­ly Russ­ian-backed hack­er group known as “Fan­cy Bear,” and beat them at their own game.

Not falling for hack­ers’ ploy

Macron’s peo­ple already had said they respond­ed to phish­ing attacks by feed­ing them false login infor­ma­tion, and per­haps plant­ed bad data into the hack­ers’ hands. Then, when the inevitable last-minute Wik­iLeaks data dump occurred, the hack­ers looked fool­ish. So fool­ish that even Wik­iLeaks said this past week­end that the doc­u­ments alleged­ly stolen from the French candidate’s cam­paign actu­al­ly includ­ed meta­da­ta that point­ed to a Russ­ian com­pa­ny and an indi­vid­ual with ties to Russian’s intel­li­gence agencies.

Oops.

Again, we’ll prob­a­bly nev­er know what real­ly hap­pened. How­ev­er, accord­ing to Cym­me­tria CEO Gadi Evron, that’s good enough. Unlike the Clin­ton response last fall, which had the effect of con­firm­ing the authen­tic­i­ty of Leon Panetta’s hacked emails, the Macron response cast uncer­tain­ty and doubt on the whole affair. Mis­sion accomplished.

Scam­mers get scammed

Let’s back up for a moment. Some­where in the back of your mind, you remem­ber the phrase “419 Scam”—otherwise known as a Niger­ian scam. After years of putting up with those crap­py emails, a group of inter­net fight­ers got the bright idea to turn the tables, and scam the scam­mers. The con­cept of “419 eaters” was born. These folks would respond to emails sug­gest­ing they’d inher­it­ed mil­lions of dol­lars as Niger­ian roy­al­ty, and play along with the scam.

They’d string the crim­i­nals along for days, even weeks. The the­o­ry is sound enough: That if scam­mers were occu­pied by 419Eaters, they couldn’t be scam­ming actu­al vic­tims. And per­haps, occa­sion­al­ly, the good guys would get enough data on the crim­i­nals to gain a pros­e­cu­tion. Along the way, 419eater.com and oth­er sim­i­lar groups man­aged to get scam­mers to take some pret­ty embar­rass­ing pho­tos.

The broad idea behind such an oper­a­tion might be called “offen­sive” cyber defense. Scam the scam­mers. Hack the hack­ers. Don’t just sit around and tol­er­ate the prob­ing. Fight back. Dis­able IPs that are being used to attack. Put out false flags. Embar­rass the adver­sary, or even bet­ter, dis­able her or him.

The Dai­ly Beast had ear­li­er report­ed that Macron was doing exact­ly this dur­ing the cam­paign. Recall that Russia’s Vladimir Putin had explic­it­ly sup­port­ed Macron’s oppo­nent, Marine Le Pen, who was in favor of break­ing up the EU and oth­er poli­cies favor­able to the Russ­ian president.

You can flood these [phish­ing] address­es with mul­ti­ple pass­words and logins, true ones, false ones, so the peo­ple behind them use up a lot of time try­ing to fig­ure them out,” Mounir Mahjoubi, the head of Macron’s dig­i­tal team, had told The Dai­ly Beast ear­li­er.

Hack­ers get no traction

Again, we’ll prob­a­bly nev­er know the truth of the mat­ter. But right there, Macron’s folks already had sowed enough doubt that what­ev­er hacked emails and doc­u­ments came out as France’s “Octo­ber sur­prise,” they would come with built-in uncertainty.

Evron sug­gests this is the dawn of a new age of cybersecurity:

Cyber­se­cu­ri­ty has been on the defen­sive for a very long time,” he wrote. “Final­ly see­ing peo­ple think like I do and take con­trol of the bat­tle ground, not just sit­ting and wait­ing for the adver­saries to bypass our sta­t­ic defens­es, but using the attack­ers’ very own pre­dictable method­olo­gies and M.O. against them is very exciting.”

Maybe, maybe not. But the post­script on this sto­ry will be fas­ci­nat­ing. I sus­pect the lay­ers of dis­in­for­ma­tion will only get deep­er, and the sto­ry less clear, as time goes by. As evi­dence for that, Rus­sia-con­trolled Sputniknews.com actu­al­ly report­ed on the FSB (Russ­ian intel­li­gence agency) con­nec­tion to the Fan­cy Bear doc­u­ment dump.

Wik­iLeaks stat­ed that the Evri­ka com­pa­ny had obtained “FSB secu­ri­ty cer­tifi­cate to pro­tect state secrets” and post­ed a link to the arti­cle of 2003 by Russia’s Leniz­dat media out­let,” Sput­niknews report­ed. “The arti­cle says that the Evri­ka (or Eure­ca) com­pa­ny is oper­at­ing since the 1990s and spe­cial­izes in the devel­op­ment and cre­ation of inte­grat­ed infor­ma­tion sys­tems, as well as in man­u­fac­tur­ing com­put­er machinery.”

Why would the Sput­nik news agency all-but-con­firm Russia’s involve­ment in try­ing to hack French elec­tions? I wish Michael Crich­ton were alive to ask.

More sto­ries relat­ed to elec­tion hacking:
Cre­at­ing chaos at the polls: Putting elec­tion hack risks into context
Cast bal­lot for tighter secu­ri­ty on vot­er data
To main­tain democ­ra­cy, dig­i­tal elec­tion net­works must be improved


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