Britain and Germany were already beefing up cyber security ahead of key elections even before the hacking attack on France’s Emmanuel Macron, months after Hillary Clinton was caught in the online crosshairs.
Clinton recently reiterated her view that Russian hacking of her campaign’s emails was partly to blame for her defeat in last year’s US presidential election to Donald Trump.
“If the election had been on October 27, I’d be your president,” the defeated Democratic candidate told a charity luncheon last Tuesday.
In France, going to the polls Sunday in a presidential run-off election between Macron and far-right Marine Le Pen, hacking reared its ugly head at the 11th hour.
Shortly before midnight Friday frontrunner Macron was the victim of a “massive and coordinated hacking attack”.
His staff described the release of internal documents, including thousands of emails and accounting documents, as an attempt at “democratic destabilisation”.
The files were reportedly stolen weeks ago during one of “an intense and repeated” series of cyber attacks against Macron since the launch of his campaign.
Taking note of the events in the US and in France, intelligence authorities in Britain and Germany are taking steps to prevent cyber attacks ahead of their own hotly-contested elections.
For cyber security expert Ewan Lawson, political parties are easy targets because they “quite often don’t have particularly robust cyber security”.
“They are not-for-profit and don’t have a lot of money to throw at the problem,” he told the Press Association news agency. “So I think we could reasonably expect to see data theft, data breaches”.
Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre (NSCS) said it was on “high alert” the day after Prime Minister Theresa May surprised the country last month by calling for a general election to be held on June 8.
British spies are aware of the problem having already thwarted an attempt by Russian hackers to interfere in the 2015 general election, according to NSCS chief Ciaran Martin.
Recognising the problem, the NCSC convened the UK’s main political parties to a “technical seminar” in March to provide them with practical steps to reduce the risk as well as advise on incident management.
German authorities have taken similar steps ahead of September’s general election.
Arne Schoenbohm, president of Germany’s Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) said back in March that government networks were being attacked “on a daily basis”.
As a precaution, she explained, the BSI had approached election officials and political parties to discuss how they could protect themselves.
Germany is facing “increasingly aggressive cyber espionage” as well as “further attacks,” Hans-Georg Maassen, the domestic intelligence chief, said on Thursday.
He also highlighted how Martin Schulz, the Social Democrats leader, had recently been the victim of a vicious disinformation campaign claiming his father had been a Nazi supervisor in a concentration camp.
In late March, Germany’s armed forces launched a new cyber command tasked with protecting the military’s own IT infrastructure and computer-assisted weapons systems, as well as surveillance of online threats.
According to the defence ministry, the IT systems of the Bundeswehr – which includes the armed forces and their civil administration – had been targeted more than 280,000 times in this year’s first nine weeks alone.
Similarly to the US, Russia has been singled out by both countries as the country from which a lot of the attacks originate.
“Over the last two years there has been a step change in Russian aggression in cyber space,” the NSCS’s Martin told the Sunday Times in February.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel travelled to Russia last week for talks with President Vladimir Putin. Afterwards both sides were circumspect about the issue.
“We know cyber criminality is an international challenge, and also that Russian military doctrine touches on the topic of hybrid military strategy,” she said.
Russia has steadfastly denied all accusations of state-sponsored cyber-attacks. “We never interfere in the political life and the political processes of other countries,” Putin said. “And we don’t want anybody interfering in our political life and foreign policy processes,” he warned.