In yet another blow to the electoral integrity of western democracies, Wikileaks has published what it claims to be files on private information on French election candidates.
The infamous organisation, run by Julian Assange, tweeted out links to thousands of leaked files and emails on 1 February. The tranches reportedly contain 1138 documents on the far right national Front candidate Marine Le Pen; 3360 documents on centre-right Republican candidate Francois Fillon. Also tweeted was a line on centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, taken from Hillary Clinton's leaked emails which Wikileaks claimed clashed with Macron's public portrayal of himself.
This is not a new publication of these documents, which have apparently existed on Wikileaks databases for a while now, but rather a timely underlining of this previously secret information ahead of the French elections. The election is due to be held in late April and early May of this year. The five principal candidates include Le Pen, Macron and Fillon as well as Socialist party candidate Benoit Hamon and leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Wikileaks has been silent on these last two.
This is not a new intervention for Wikileaks, which drew controversy in 2016 for publishing a series of emails from inside the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.
Despite claims that the disclosure of such information could harm politicians, strengthen nationalist forces and interfere in elections, Wikileaks has remained resolute in its publication of sensitive political documents. On the eve of the US election, Julian Assange released a statement speaking to exactly those criticisms: “The right to receive and impart true information is the guiding principle of WikiLeaks – an organisation that has a staff and organisational mission far beyond myself. Our organisation defends the public's right to be informed.”
That is why, Assange added, “irrespective of the outcome of the 2016 US Presidential election, the real victor is the US public which is better informed as a result of our work.
Fears of cyber meddling in elections have throttled European politicians into a state of worry. With French, German and Dutch voters all electing new heads of state this year, politicians have publicly expressed fears about meddling in their respective elections.
Jean Yves Le Drian, minister of defence and veteran's Affairs, said recently that it would be naive to think that France wasn't a target for cyber-manipulation around the country's upcoming elections.
The director of the French National Agency for the Security of Information Systems, Guillaume Poupard, told news agency FRANCE 24 that he's expecting interference: “We're clearly not up against people who are throwing punches just to see what happens. There's a real strategy that includes cyber, interference and leaked information.”
French and German officials have already made comments about the threat of foreign interference and the Dutch government recently announced that it would be largely dispensing with electronic voting in favour of paper ballots.
Dutch interior minister Ronald Plasterk recently explained the decision telling press that, “the cabinet cannot exclude the possibility that state actors might gain advantage from influencing political decision-making and public opinion in the Netherlands and might use means to try and achieve such influence.”
Bolstering those fears are the conclusions of US intelligence agencies that the Russian government leaked internal Democratic party files to Wikileaks, in order to swing the 2016 presidential election in favour of then president-elect Donald Trump.
“Hacking of political figures in attempt to influence elections is likely to be the new normal”, John Bambenek, threat intelligence manager at Fidelis Cybersecurity told SC Media UK. “This latest move by Wikileaks may – but not necessarily – mean that it anticipates having more pertinent documents to release on these political figures in the coming weeks.”
“Only time will tell if Wikileaks and its sources have additional data to attempt to influence the French election. At this stage, the best it can do is try to pick Marine Le Pen's opponent, as it seems she's likely to make the runoff election barring significant changes in the political landscape.”
That said, added Bambenek, “such influence can only happen on the margins and it's not likely possible to influence an election more than a few percentage points unless the revelations of leaked documents entails behaviour of a gross criminal nature."