Microsoft has detected a range of coordinated cyberattacks against European think tanks and non-profit organisations, which focus on issues related to “democracy, electoral integrity, and public policy” and have close connections with government officials.
The tech giant announced on Wednesday (20 February) that it has recently detected infiltrations targeting employees of the German Council on Foreign Relations and European offices of The Aspen Institute and The German Marshall Fund.
Microsoft said it is “critical that organisations underpinning the democratic process have access to state-of-the-art cybersecurity protection” in the run up the 2019 EU elections in May, which are being touted as an ideal opportunity for malicious actors to attempt to influence the outcome of the ballots.
Microsoft added that they would be stepping up their efforts against foreign interference ahead of the EU elections and would roll out their AccountGuard cybersecurity service free-of-charge to organisations working within the remit of the EU elections and using Office 365.
The software, which is part of Microsoft’s Defending Democracy Program, will be made available across twelve additional markets including France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Portugal, Slovakia, and Spain.
Karen Donfried, president of the German Marshall Fund, responded to the news of cyberattacks.
“With European parliamentary elections this spring and American presidential elections next year, it is more important than ever that we be vigilant to protect our democracies from foreign interference,” she said.
“The risk is not just for candidates and campaigns. Organisations and individuals need to be aware and prepared that malign forces, including sophisticated state actors, seek to exploit them in the digital space.”
The source of the attacks has not been disclosed but many high-level political officials on the continent have in the past levelled the blame at Russia for attacks of this sort.
Andrus Ansip, the Commission president for the Digital Single Market, recently told EURACTIV that the EU needs to do more to protect itself from Russia’s interest in influencing the outcome of the European elections.
In October last year, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Russia must “stop its reckless pattern of behaviour”, following allegations of Russian-led cyber-attacks on the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
Moreover, the German government also found itself under attack from hackers earlier this year, after hundreds of German politicians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, had their personal details stolen and subsequently published across the web.
Many citizens are concerned about the risk of cyberattacks ahead of the EU elections in May.
The Eurobarometer study on democracy and elections, the results of which were published in November, found that 61% of Europeans worry that elections can be manipulated through cyberattacks, while 59% are concerned about foreign actors and criminal groups influencing elections.
The results prompted Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans to say that EU citizens are “well aware of the dark forces that would like to manipulate what they read, think and ultimately vote for.”
Meanwhile, one of the more ‘cybersecure’ nations in the EU, Estonia, has been unambiguous in its warnings ahead of the European elections, saying that a spate of cyberattacks around the time of the vote could prevent the new European Parliament from convening.
“In the case of the elections to the European Parliament, a successful campaign against one member state that includes cyber-enabled elements could mean that the assignment of seats cannot be confirmed, thus compromising the entirety of election processes,” the Estonian document said.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]