Russian intelligence operatives reportedly used Facebook to spy on the close associates of French president Emmanuel Macron during his election campaign this year, it has emerged. The revelation sheds new light on how Moscow's state actors exploit social media for espionage.
Kremlin-linked spies created dozens of fake Facebook personas to pose as "friends of friends" of officials and glean personal information from people working on the campaign. The ultimate aim, sources claimed, was most likely to access accounts and steal login information.
Facebook staffers first noticed the clandestine efforts as the presidential election kicked off in late April. They were able to link the activity to tools previously used by Russia's GRU, according to Reuters, citing a US congressman and two anonymous officials.
GRU military intelligence, according to the US government, played a key role in the hacking of numerous politicians during the 2016 US presidential election via a hacking unit dubbed "Fancy Bear".
In a world first, state espionage quickly transformed into a leaking and misinformation campaign.
Reuters reported that Facebook officials had briefed a US congressional committee about their findings. They said the Russian spies did not gain enough access in order to hijack accounts but confirmed thousands of bot profiles have since been shut down for spreading spam.
In April, Facebook released a blog post saying urgent action had been taken against profiles and so-called bots that were caught spreading misinformation about the French election.
Officials now say the number of fake accounts went as high as 70,000.
"The apparent intent of the campaign was to deceptively gain new friend connections by liking and interacting primarily with popular publisher Pages on our platform, after which point they would send spam," Facebook's Shabnam Shaik wrote at the time in a blog post.
In the middle of this perfect storm, Trend Micro, a Japanese cybersecurity firm, also claimed in April that the Macron team had been targeted by Fancy Bear hackers who were using booby-trapped websites in an attempt to steal credentials, a known tactic of the Russian group.
On 5 May, less than 48 hours before the final stage of the election, the assertion was proven true as hackers dumped roughly 9GB-worth of emails stolen from campaign officials. The same day, it emerged a 200-strong bot network had been used to spread the news on Twitter.
At this point, fingers pointed at the Kremlin, which denied being involved in any cybercrime operations targeting France or the US. In the end, the operation didn't have the desired effect as Macron easily beat his far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen, by a margin of 66% to 34%.