French cybersecurity service ANSSI is gearing up for a showdown with Russian hackers ahead of the country’s presidential election in May.
ANSSI director, Guillaume Poupard, is keen to avoid any repeat of the US elections last November, where Kremlin-backed operatives are thought to have tried to influence public opinion by leaking damaging Democratic Party emails and seeding fake news stories.
In a new interview with France 24 he warned that political parties simply aren’t able to tackle the threat from nation state hackers on their own.
“It’s pretty serious, because on one side there are strong attackers, while on the other, there are political parties. Fundamentally, political parties, like small and medium-size businesses … are not equipped to deal with the situation alone,” he told the TV station.
“We’re clearly not up against people who are throwing punches just to see what happens. There’s a real strategy that includes cyber [attacks], interference and leaked information… These are people whom we’re obviously following closely. Even if we can’t be sure that they’re the same, they’re attackers who regularly come knocking on our ministers’ doors.”
Poupard claimed that his agency would step in quickly to warn the public if any hacked information was leaked for political purposes ahead of the elections.
“It wasn’t very natural for American intelligence agencies to communicate to the broader public. It’s not easy for them, they can’t say much without running the risk of revealing how they obtained their information,” he’s quoted as saying.
“In France, ANSSI can speak pretty freely and there’s no conflict of interest because we’re not an intelligence service.”
Ilia Kolochenko, CEO of web security firm High-Tech Bridge, welcomed any attempt to strengthen critical infrastructure and mitigate the cyber threat to elections.
However, he argued that hackers are unlikelty to be able to change the outcome of an election in a developed country like France.
“We should not exaggerate the risks, but instead perform an objective and holistic assessment of the risks to implement appropriate and reasonable mitigation,” he concluded.
That said, if the intelligence reports are accurate, Russian state-sponsored hackers were not necessarily tasked with getting one candidate elected to the White House, but in fundamentally undermining the US democratic process, and they appear to have been fairly successful in doing that.