World

Russia tried to spy on Macron

Two dozen phony Facebook accounts were created to get close to French President's election campaign

SAN FRANCISCO: Russian intelligence agents attempted to spy on French President Emmanuel Macron's election campaign earlier this year by creating phony Facebook personas, according to a United States congressman and two other people briefed on the effort.

About two dozen Facebook accounts were created to conduct surveillance on Mr Macron's campaign officials and others close to the centrist former financier as he sought to defeat far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen and other opponents in the two-round election, the sources said. Mr Macron won in a landslide in May.

Facebook said in April it had taken action against fake accounts that were spreading misinformation about the French election. But the effort to infiltrate the social networks of Macron officials has not previously been reported.

Russia has repeatedly denied interfering in the French election by hacking and leaking e-mails and documents.

US intelligence agencies told Reuters in May that hackers with connections to the Russian government were involved, but they did not have conclusive evidence that the Kremlin ordered the hacking.

Facebook confirmed to Reuters that it had detected spying accounts in France and deactivated them.

Company officials then briefed congressional committee members and staff, among others, about their findings.

People involved in the conversations also said the number of Facebook accounts suspended in France for promoting propaganda or spam, much of it related to the election, had climbed to 70,000 - a big jump from the 30,000 account closures the company disclosed in April.

Facebook did not dispute the figure.

POSED AS FRIENDS

The spying campaign included Russian agents posing as friends of friends of Macron associates and trying to glean personal information from them, according to the US congressman and two others.

Facebook employees noticed the efforts during the first round of the presidential election and traced them to tools used in the past by Russia's GRU military intelligence unit, they said.

They spoke on condition they not be named because they were discussing sensitive government and private intelligence.

Facebook told American officials that it did not believe the spies burrowed deep enough to get the targets to download malicious software or give away their login information, which they believe may have been the goal of the operation.

The same GRU unit, dubbed Fancy Bear or APT 28 in the cyber security industry, has been blamed for hacking the Democratic National Committee during last year's US presidential election and many other political targets. The GRU did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr Mounir Mahjoubi - who was digital director of Mr Macron's political movement, En Marche, and is now a junior minister for digital issues in his government - told Reuters in May that some security experts blamed the GRU specifically, though they had no proof. - REUTERS

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