Microsoft has detected a hacking campaign targeting democratic institutions ahead of the European Union elections this year, from a group believed to be sponsored by the Russian government.
The attacks have targeted the employees of political campaigns as well as think-tanks and non-profit organisations working on topics connected to democracy and electoral integrity.
Among the organisations targeted were the German Council on Foreign Relations, the Aspen Institutes in Europe, and The German Marshall Fund, according to Microsoft.
Microsoft said it was confident that the spear-phishing campaign originated from a hacking group which the UK has previously declared to be sponsored by the Russian state.
The attackers were spotted creating fake emails which would encourage victims to visit a malicious URL, where the attackers can gain access to employee credentials and deliver malware.
These spear-phishing emails are the same method that was used to target the Democratic National Committee ahead of the US presidential elections in 2016.
Elections for the European Parliament are due to take place in member states in May.
In a statement, the president of the German Marshall Fund, Karen Donfried, said: “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, including online.”
A spokesperson for the German Marshall Fund told Sky News that as far as the organisation was aware its systems had not been compromised by the attacks.
Microsoft said that as a result of the new hacking campaign it is expanding the number of countries its AccountGuard service is available in – a security programme which protects political campaigns from hacking.
The campaign follows a sharp escalation in recent years of what has been alleged to be the Russian state’s use of cyber tools to interfere in foreign democratic processes.
In January 2017, US intelligence agencies concluded that Russian president Vladimir Putin had ordered a campaign of hacking and other covert operations to influence last year’s presidential election in favour of Donald Trump.
As part of the hacking campaign the Russian group stole emails from both the Democrats and Republicans, but chose to release only the Democrats’ emails in a bid to swing the election.
Although Donald Trump won the election, the intelligence agencies said there was no evidence that this had been the result of the Russian influence campaign.
A similar line has been taken regarding potential Russian interference in the UK’s referendum to leave the EU.
A parliamentary inquiry into disinformation has this week called on the government to investigate alleged Russian attempts to influence the Brexit referendum.
It warned that while the government “has been very ready to accept the evidence of Russian activity in the Skripal case” it has been “reluctant to accept evidence” of the same activity influencing the Brexit vote, due to the political implications of the referendum being influenced by foreign interference.
Similarly to the US intelligence report, the British government said it “has not seen evidence of successful use of disinformation by foreign actors, including Russia, to influence UK democratic processes” although it acknowledged that disinformation campaigns took place.
The committee criticised the description of lack of evidence of “successful interference” because it said “the term ‘successful’ is impossible to define in retrospect”.