Expert skeptical of alleged U.S cyberattack on French computers

A report that said the U.S. hacked the computer network within France's presidential palace is questionable, given how well countries are able to cover their digital tracks, says one security expert.

The news magazine l'Express reported this week that the U.S. broke into the network of the Elysee Palace in May, just days before France's presidential elections. The attackers stole classified information from computers used by President Nicolas Sarkozy's close adviser, Xavier Musca, the magazine said, quoting an anonymous source. Sarkozy later lost the election to Francois Hollande.

The U.S. Embassy in Paris denied the country's involvement in the attack. "We categorically refute allegations of unidentified sources," Embassy spokesman Mitchell Moss told l'Express.

Murray Jennex, a cybersecurity expert and associate professor at San Diego State University, said he was skeptical, because he believed a U.S. cyberattack would be more difficult to trace.

"I would expect that had the U.S. really hacked the French, the hackers would have taken great care not to leave traces that could be tracked," he said this week.

Also, it is not unusual for hackers to leave false evidence to steer investigators away from them, Jennex said. "So what I'm saying is that I'm not sure I believe the U.S. really did hack the French."

[See also:Ã'Â After Google-China dust-up, cyberwar emerges as a threat]

The hackers used Facebook to make a connection with people working in the Elysee Palace, the magazine reported. Using information gathered on the social network, the hackers sent emails designed to trick the victims into clicking on links to a fake palace Web page, where their credentials were stolen.

The attackers were then able to install the Flame malware in the palace network and find their way to Musca's computers. Flame, discovered by Kaspersky Lab this year, is a sophisticated malicious program that experts believe countries have used since 2010 in cyberespionage campaigns.Ã'Â

In general, spying among friendly nations is not unusual, Jennex said. For example, Israel is suspected of hacking U.S. government networks to gather information on potential changes of U.S. policies in the Middle East.

The cyberattack on the French palace was likely motivated by a desire to know how a potential change in presidents would impact relations France has with Middle Eastern countries, the magazine reported.

"You can be on very good terms with a friendly country and still want to guarantee their unwavering support -- especially during a transition period," the source told the magazine.

Along with spying on governments, industrial espionage is also common among friendly nations looking to steal intellectual property from corporations. "I remember a briefing where it was said that France was actively hacking U.S. companies looking for intellectual property," Jennex said. He declined to provide details.

Read more about malware/cybercrime in CSOonline's Malware/Cybercrime section.

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