How France beat the Macron hack

A Kremlin-affiliated hacking group known as Fancy Bear, the same Russian operatives responsible for hacks of American Democratic Party's campaign officials before last year's presidential election, is suspected of carrying out a massive leak against French president-elect Emmanuel Macron, released two days before he defeated his far-right, pro-Putin opponent Marine Le Pen.

But unlike in the U.S., where Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton said Moscow's "weaponization of information" compromised her campaign and ultimately led to her defeat, French voters responded to this hacking controversy with mostly a shrug.

"If these documents contain revelations, Le Monde will of course publish them after having investigated them, respecting our journalistic and ethical rules, and without allowing ourselves to be exploited by the publishing calendar of anonymous actors," said a statement published by Le Monde newspaper regarding its decision to abide by French law that banned media coverage of any campaign statements as of Friday night.

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The timing of the Macron leak meant that French media virtually ignored the document dump. Instead, the information mostly played out its short life online, apparently picking up steam by non-French people, under the hashtag #MacronGate. The documents were, in fact, first published on social networks by Jack Posobiec, a pro-Trump propagandist.

Awarding no time to either defending or denouncing them, the media blackout meant that the data dump was quickly marginalized, prevented from obtaining "whistleblowing" status or sowing mass confusion among the public. According to initial reviews, the massive dump contained fairly mundane material, such as personal and professional emails, memos about the weather, unremarkable campaign financing contracts, mixed in with a sprinkle of fake documents, said the election commission during a meeting on Saturday.

Julien Berrebi, a resident of the Parisian suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine, who voted for Macron in order to block Le Pen from taking power, said that few French voters saw or cared about the leaks, having already been over-saturated by the political drama of an unusually climactic campaign in the last two weeks.

"It wasn't on TV so the hacks didn't really make much noise. Plus, it was the end of the campaign," said Berrebi.

The French presidential campaigns, officially only five weeks long and involving multiple parties, is distinctly more low-key than the American election season. Candidates need to gather only 500 signatures of support from about 47,000 elected representatives in order to qualify. French law limits donations to 16.8 million euros ($18.39 million) for the first round, and another 5 million euros ($5.5 million) for those who make it to the second round. Candidates can only make televised statements that are subject to strict length and editing rules.

By comparison, the U.S. 2016 elections lasted a full 597 days and had Hillary Clinton spending a hefty $1.2 billion and Donald Trump $647 million in their campaigns.

France's relaxed political atmosphere might also be the reason that French people, who are subject to a deluge of "fake news" on social media, are less susceptible to actually clicking and sharing those stories when compared to their American counterparts, according to a report by Oxford University researchers.

The report found that "French voters are sharing better quality information than what many U.S. voters shared and almost as much quality news and information as German users share," according to the study by the Oxford Internet Institute. "French voters are sharing better quality information than what many U.S. voters shared, and almost as much quality news and information as German users share."

Nonetheless, France has been fiercely preparing for what the National Cyber-security Agency classified as "high risk" for cyber attacks. The French foreign ministry decided to cancel online voting for citizens residing abroad for the upcoming parliamentary elections in June.

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Macron has accused Kremlin-backed news sites and state-affiliated hackers of attempting to derail his campaign in order to sway Sunday's voter in favor of Macron's pro-Putin opponent Marine Le Pen. Trend Micro, a Tokyo-based cybersecurity company, released a report last month detailing the activities of the Russian-affiliated Fancy Bear in targeting Macron and his team. It said that the group has, for more than a year and continuing until today, been targeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel's party, which is up for re-election in September against far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany) party.

The takeaway from last weekend's data hack is that information warfare will continue to remain a critical part of modern political campaigning, said Itay Glick, CEO of the cybersecurity company Vitero, which has distributors in Europe.

"It seems that somebody, or some groups, are trying to get all the possible information on politicians, but this will not be the last hack of an elected official," said Glick.

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