PARIS — Maj. Gen. Didier Tisseyre is France’s new cyber defense force commander — the “conductor” of an orchestra made up of military officials and the domestic defense industry, as he puts it.

Cyber Defence Command was created in 2017 and was expanded in January when Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly announced France will develop and deploy offensive cyber weapons. Tisseyre took on the lead role Sept. 1 from his predecessor and most recently served as the deputy to that former commander. He spoke to Defense News earlier this month in a meeting room at the Armed Forces Ministry.

What is your role as the head of Cyber Defence Command?

I am a conductor, and my orchestra is made up of the Army, Navy and Air Force chiefs of staff, ANSSI [France’s National Agency for the Security of Information Systems], and defense industry leaders.

We must protect our systems, be robust, be resilient because if France’s vital interests are attacked, then the armed forces must be able to react. Our weapons systems, our command systems are all computer-controlled. This makes them powerful and effective but also vulnerable, so we must be able to protect them. And today this protection must be as global and end-to-end as possible. This means that everyone in the Ministry of the Armed Forces must work together, and there must be a conductor to coordinate the protection and the defense of our interconnected networks. That is my job.

I have a staff and a number of specialized units who contribute to this defense and coordinate it. But within each armed force — the Navy, the Army, the Air Force — there are cyberwarriors who liaise with us to defend their systems.

We work very closely with ANSSI, exchanging information so that we can anticipate future attacks. We also work closely with our fellow NATO members, our bilateral partners and other international organizations. The idea is to be able to anticipate and not just to react.

What does France consider a top cyberthreat?

Cyberspace is a very positive place for bringing people together and is wonderful for the economy, for arts and so on. But precisely because it brings thousands of people into contact with each other, it is also used to get money fraudulently, to influence, to destabilize, to spread ideologies. And even if we must maintain freedom of expression, there are certain things in France which cannot be said publicly — [incitement to ethnic and racial hatred, for example]. Our principle is that everything that happens in real life is transposable into cyberspace, so for France and many other countries, the law is just as applicable in cyberspace as it is in real life. But because there is a general impression that no rules apply in cyberspace, then individuals and groups use it for criminal activities, spying, destabilizing electoral processes. And the question arises as to whether these individual or groups are being backed by states.

As a member of the armed forces, my duty is to be paranoid and assume that the cyber enemy may have a strong, state-backed criminal intent to prepare conflicts, and so that is what we must be prepared for.

How do you anticipate the ways imaginative hackers will act?

By hiring imaginative youngsters ourselves. Our cyberwarriors have to be extremely motivated to protect the ministry’s systems and France, obviously. They must have very specialist IT technical or social media know-how, or be brilliant intelligence gatherers. A lot of what is said on social networks allows us to learn about our enemy, to anticipate possible attacks, or even enables us to hinder their propaganda, particularly on our theaters of operation in Africa or the Levant, for example, where part of our mission is to stop jihadist groups from recruiting.

Our cyberwarriors have to have a particular frame of mind because we are not asking them to configure the network or equipment, we are really in a combat situation in cyberspace. We work on operations to defend or to undertake offensive actions to protect our systems, our freedom to act, to guarantee the sovereignty of our systems.

Is France confronting specific threats that are different from those faced by other countries?

Fundamentally, no, because we are all cyberattacked by people trying to block our computers, and attackers are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their ways of hacking.

How does France respond?

We must be prepared to react. But France considers that attributing an attack — notably where advanced persistent threats, [or APT], are concerned — is a very political, highly sensitive thing to do. APT can be the work of individuals seeking ways to make money, or being paid by others and potentially linked to intelligence services of other nations.

If an organization such as NATO is attacked, then France is, by principle, against collective attribution. Each member of the organization must agree that the attacking individual or group is taking its orders from a state because attribution of blame, as I said, is highly political: You’re designating a state as being responsible for attacking another one, and that has a very strong impact. You have to be able to prove it, and the state that has been blamed might not appreciate having the finger pointed at it.

In the physical world when an aircraft crosses into another nation’s airspace or a vehicle crosses a border, there is concrete proof: radar, photographs and so on. The difficulty in cyberspace is that it’s very easy to pass oneself off as somebody else and to hide one’s tracks; [just] because an APT is perpetrated by attackers physically present in one country, that [doesn’t mean] they were taking their orders from that country. Here’s an example to illustrate my point: They could use a server in Germany to send the data to the U.K., which then rebounds in France and finally attacks the United States. So Washington would try and work back to see where the attack came from and would eventually discover that it came from Germany, but that doesn’t mean the order to attack came from Germany. In cyberspace, leads very quickly get entangled. So we really have to be extremely careful about a hack-back before thorough due diligence has been undertaken.

What France wants is that each member state validates the blame before the finger is pointed. We are against the idea that just because one member blames a state for attacking it, that NATO takes it as a given and invokes Article 5 of the NATO treaty, [which calls for collective action if a member state is attacked].

What would happen if France is attacked?

It depends. If France thinks that the attack came from a state and wants a collective reaction from NATO, then there’d be a whole lot of discussions about the risk of escalation, Article 5, the right to self-defend and so on. These notions involve significant commitments for countries, and so we want things to be clearly defined where cyberspace is concerned: What is an attack? Who was targeted? What are the consequences of the attack? Did it touch the physical integrity of nationals of the country? Were the operating systems of a hospital or a power station impacted?

We want to take into account the economic or human impact of the attack and the nature of the attacker: Was it an individual having fun? Was it a group, and what were its motivations? Was it a jihadist group with terrorist intent, or was it outright a state pre-positioning itself for future conflicts or trying to wield influence?

France wants things to be clear. We want to establish how international laws apply to cyberspace, and as I mentioned earlier, we insist on due diligence.

Could you explain what you mean by “due diligence”?

If, for example, France sees that it has been attacked via a server in Germany, then “due diligence” means that instead of us simply hacking Germany back, we would ask the authorities in Berlin to act to stop that server being used. So even if, within NATO, a member state is attacked, then France holds that that state is not authorized to hack back without due diligence being undertaken first.

It’s a bit complex, but we’ve listed the types of attack, the principle of digital sovereignty, the references to the Tallinn Manual — [the independent academic research product authored by an international group of about 20 experts to guide how international law applies to cyber conflicts and cyberwarfare]. And we’ve positioned ourselves with regards to this, and in certain particular cases have said, “Be careful, our interpretation of X is slightly different for these reasons,” and we explain why.

We also explain that we consider an attack on information systems in France is an attack on our national sovereignty. That gives us the right to riposte, not necessarily in a cyber way but it could be a diplomatic response or an economic one ― it depends on the nature of the attack and the impact it has and on the attacker himself, what his motivations were and in what framework the attack took place.

How does the ministry work with industry?

The ministry knows how to defend itself, and we have the right, within a very strict framework, to undertake offensive cyberattacks in foreign operations. The attacker knows that a direct attack on us is thus likely to fail. So he will ruse. He’ll attack the weak link: the defense industry, notably the subcontractors that may only make a small component of a weapon or an IT system. He’ll put a virus or malware in that subcontractor’s system, and it will progressively make its way into the major contractor’s system and then into the weapon system. And as all these are interconnected, then this is how we would be attacked. So we need to have confidence in the entire supply chain, and we are on the verge of signing a convention with industry aimed at raising general awareness of this risk at every level of industry.

France has allocated €1.6 billion (U.S. $1.8 billion) to cyber defense in its 2019-2025 military program law. What are the main spending priorities?

To ensure that the system is protected and defendable. Until recently, we concentrated on the functionality of the system: what it was designed to do and who for (the Air Force, the Navy, the Army, etc.). And making the systems secure was an additional layer to the basic functions, so if funds ran out, then sometimes the layer would be only half done or had holes in it.

Today we are aware that there is such vulnerability in computer systems that security has to be built in by design. It’s part and parcel of the functionality of the system.

We’re also spending money on the detection of attacks. Our network has sensors in it to detect whether anyone is using the network who shouldn’t be. We’re working on the characterization of attacks, which means we’re collecting data on malware — a bit like a laboratory that might keep a sort of library of viruses and bacteria — to be able to quickly establish what type of attack is being undertaken and therefore what the best “medicine” is for it.

And of course we’ll be hiring another 1,000 cyberwarriors between now and 2025.

Christina Mackenzie was the France correspondent for Defense News.

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