US-sponsored snoopers hacked into the computers of the Élysée Palace earlier this year ahead of the French presidential election and lifted top secret information, using what appears to be the notorious Flame malware, a French newspaper has alleged.
The attack, which occurred in May a few days before the second round of the election, was first revealed by French media in July, although the details have been largely suppressed until now by the Palace, according to L’Express.
The paper claims hackers gained entry to the computers thanks to simple social engineering on Facebook – befriending workers at the palace and then sending a link to a fake log-in page for the Élysée intranet thanks to which they managed to harvest access credentials.
Once inside, the attackers installed malware which moved around inside the network looking for the information it wanted – infecting the machines of several senior presidential advisors including Sarkozy’s secretary general, Xavier Musca. The president himself escaped as he didn’t have a networked PC, L’Express said.
The report fingers the US because of the relative sophistication of the attack – it apparently took the French information security agency (Anssi) several days to clean and restore the network, and servers on five continents were used to hide the attack's origin.
In addition, much of the code recovered bears a striking resemblance to that of the infamous information-stealing Flame Trojan, which is thought to be a US-Israeli project designed to target Iranian computer systems.
US Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano told L’Express that Flame and Stuxnet had “never been linked to the US government” and when asked specifically about the Élysée attack, added the following, rather unconvincing response:
"We have no greater partner than France, we have no greater ally than France. We cooperate in many security-related areas. I am here to further reinforce those ties and create new ones."
As to why the US may have been looking to infiltrate the networks of one of its allies, the report speculates that Sarkozy was instrumental in signing a number of key deals with Middle Eastern companies during his tenure.
"You can be on good terms with a ‘friendly country’ and still wish to ensure its continued support, especially in a period of political transition,” an unnamed official told the paper.
If true, the revelations will be more than a little embarrassing for the Obama administration, especially as it seeks to maintain the moral high ground over China in such matters.
US lawmakers and military leaders have stepped up the rhetoric against China’s state-sponsored cyber-espionage efforts over the past year or so, culminating in a recent House of Representatives report branding tech firms Huawei and ZTE a national security risk to the US.
Although most security experts acknowledge that cyber espionage goes on all the time, even between nominal allies, to make the mistake of being caught doing it is another matter.
The French are not completely blameless in this either, according to former home secretary David Blunkett.
He revealed last year that during the early 2000s, when he and then-opposite number Nicolas Sarkozy were negotiating over the future of the Sangatte refugee camp, the soon-to-be president admitted that his team had been able to read unencrypted emails between the Home Office and the British Embassy in Paris. ®