Researchers say hacker group Pawn Storm has tried to interfere in the campaign of French presidential front-runner Emmanuel Macron. US spy agencies suspect the group of having links to Russia's intelligence apparatus.
French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron's political campaign was targeted by a hacker group with suspected Russian connections, a report by a cybersecurity research group said on Tuesday, bolstering previous suggestions that the Kremlin has been trying to interfere in the French elections.
Researchers with the Japan-based anti-virus firm Trend Micro said the Pawn Storm group, which is alleged to have carried out a number of high-profile hacking attacks in the West, used so-called "phishing" techniques in an attempt to steal personal data from Macron and his campaign staffers.
"Phishing" employs lookalike websites designed to fool victims into entering sensitive information such as usernames, passwords and credit card details. Trend Micro said it had recently detected four Macron-themed fake domains being created on digital infrastructure used by Pawn Storm, which is also known as Fancy Bear or APT28.
Trend Micro researcher Feike Hacquebord said that determining who was behind a spying campaign was a difficult challenge in the world of cybersecurity, but that he was almost certain.
"This is not a 100 percent confirmation, but it's very, very likely," he said.
The Kremlin at work?
Trend Micro did not name any country as being behind Pawn Storm's activities, but the group is widely suspected of having links to Russia's security services.
The Kremlin is seen as a keen backer of Macron's rival in the presidential race, Marine Le Pen, who espouses policies considered as likely to be favored by Moscow, such as France's exit from the European Union. Macron has always staunchly advocated strengthening, rather than weakening, the bloc.
Russia has repeatedly denied accusations of trying to interfere in the French - or other - elections. On Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying that claims of the Kremlin's attempting to influence the election outcome in France were "completely incorrect."
Pawn Storm is also thought to be behind cyberattacks last summer on the US Democratic National Committee that were suspected to be aimed at undermining Hillary Clinton's bid for the White House. Other suspected targets in recent months include media groups such as "The New York Times" and Al-Jazeera.
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The head of Macron's digital campaign, Mounir Mahjoubi, confirmed to The Associated Press that there had been attempted intrusions, but said they had all been foiled.
Mahjoubi also confirmed that at least one of the fake sites identified by Trend Micro had been recently used as part of an attempt to steal sensitive information from campaign staffers.
An internal campaign report lists thousands of attempted cyberattacks since Macron launched his campaign last year. In February, the campaign's secretary-general, Richard Ferrand, said the scale and nature of the intrusions indicated that they were the work of a structured group and not individual hackers.
Macron, who won the first round of France's presidential election on Sunday, will face Le Pen in a runoff on May 7.
The French elections were carefully monitored for digital interference following suspicions that hackers backed by Moscow had attempted to influence the US electoral contest in 2016.