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In an interview with French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche, Le Drian said the nation’s infrastructure – including water, electricity, transport, telecommunications and media outlets – remained vulnerable to intrusions in the run-up to French presidential elections in April and May 2017.
He said the number of cyber attacks against the defence ministry doubled each year, and that some 24,000 attacks had been thwarted in 2016 alone.
Security services have warded off attacks aimed at “tarnishing the image of the ministry as well as strategic attacks – harassment, surveillance, espionage – and even attempts to disrupt our drone systems”, he said. “Thankfully, our defences were sufficient and none of these attacks were successful.”
Le Drian has spearheaded an initiative aimed at setting up a cyber-operations headquarters, Cybercom, which will employ 2,600 “digital soldiers” by 2019 and receive support from an additional 600 cyber experts.
France should not only be able to defend itself against cyber attacks but should also be able to strike if necessary, Le Drian said, including through the use of conventional weapons.
“France reserves the right to respond by all means it deems appropriate,” he said. “That could be through the cyber arsenal at our disposal but also by conventional means. Everything would depend on the effects of the attack.”
Le Drian cited a 2015 cyber attack on France’s TV5Monde that shut down the channel for several hours. Initial media reports said the hack was linked to the Islamic State group but the station’s chief later said that Russian hackers linked to the Kremlin were likely behind the attack.
The age of election hacks
US intelligence agencies released a declassified report on Friday that accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of personally ordering “an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election”.
Le Drian equivocated when asked whether he believed that Russia was behind the hacks of the Democratic National Committee, saying that if a state actor had interfered in the US election it would be “intolerable”.
“If there was an attempt to influence or manipulate the US presidential election, it would be a very serious incident. If it were led by a state government, it would be an intolerable interference.” Targeting a country’s electoral process is an attack on its democratic foundations and its sovereignty, he added.
“Of course our services have discussed the issue, if only to learn lessons for the future,” said Le Drian.
Germany has already expressed concerns over the integrity of its own elections this year in the face of Russian hacking attempts. Chancellor Angela Merkel warned in November that Russia might try to affect the vote by launching cyber attacks or disinformation campaigns. “We are already, even now, having to deal with information out of Russia, or with internet attacks that are of Russian origin, or with news which sows false information,” Merkel told a news conference.
The head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, Hans-George Maassen, has warned that the government, businesses and infrastructure now live under “permanent threat” from Russian cyber intrusions. Some analysts say Russia aims to undermine EU unity by exacerbating divisions among the bloc’s members, including by leaking sensitive or embarrassing information.
Le Drian said that France’s digital security services had so far not detected any “signs of operations aimed at destabilising the French elections”.
But he urged officials from all parties to take steps to eliminate any threats. Representatives from France’s main political parties met with digital security services in October to learn how to detect and prevent hacking attempts.
“It’s up to them now to apply rigorously what the experts call ‘digital hygiene’,” Le Drian said.
“You have to accept that, in principle, every email that is sent can be pirated and made public with the aim of destabilisation.”
France will hold a first round of presidential elections on April 23 with a run-off scheduled for May 7. Polls predict conservative Les Républicains candidate François Fillon will face right-wing National Front leader Marine Le Pen in the second round but foresee an eventual victory for Fillon.
Both Fillon and Le Pen have said they want to improve relations with Russia, which have been strained in recent years by Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and over Moscow’s support for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.