The number of cyber attacks hitting critical French businesses jumped fourfold last year as hackers and states took advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to make money and sow chaos, said the boss of French security and technology group Thales.
“Last year, the number of cyber attacks [in France] multiplied by four . . . That’s clearly huge. And clearly the pandemic has accelerated the rhythm of cyber attacks,” Patrice Caine, Thales chief executive, told the Financial Times.
France’s cyber security agency, the ANSSI, clocked 200 large-scale cyber attacks on so-called Operators of Vital Importance in 2020 compared to just 50 the year before, according to the company. The ANSSI keeps a list of around 250 such companies across 12 areas of critical infrastructure such as banking, health and defence.
Thales’ Rapid Response Force team, which is sent out to help companies when there is a particularly serious attack, performed an average of 2 major interventions per month last year, almost double the level in 2019.
Caine, 51, who took over Thales in 2014, said the pandemic had accelerated an already fast growing cyber threat as people started to work from home on less secure computers.
“The fact that working from home has been . . . applied in a very short period of time has clearly increased the number of weaknesses” making it “more simple” to attack companies, he said.
With governments already under pressure for their handling of the pandemic crisis, Caine suggested that other states “wanted to take advantage of this situation . . . to destabilise” rivals.
Caine’s current focus on cyber security, which he says is “booming”, comes as French president Emmanuel Macron pledges to boost the country’s capacity to face down cyber attacks, including €500m to help companies and public authorities shore up IT systems.
Macron’s investment comes in the wake of cyber attacks on three French hospitals over the past few months, sparking concerns that hackers were preying on the outsized importance of health services right now.
For Thales, cyber security was worth more than €1bn in sales in 2020, 6 per cent of the group’s total. It expects to increase its cyber security sales by around 10 per cent in 2021.
“Even when workers go back to the office in large numbers, we expect the level of cyber attacks to stay high because at least some people will still work from home. And at the same time, the cyber crime network has and will continue to become more organised, and attacks are more and more sophisticated,” said Caine.
Thales, which is 25.7 per cent owned by the French state and 24.7 per cent owned by defence group Dassault, has been under pressure due to Covid-19, cutting costs and suffering from falling profits — with its aerospace business particularly hard bit by the pandemic.
The sprawling group, which sits across aerospace, transport and digital security, reported like-for-like revenues down 10 per cent and operating profit down a third compared to 2019.
And while Caine says most of its businesses will “regroup” this year, some analysts remain wary of Thales exposure to defence.
“Defence will continue to represent most of the group profits for the foreseeable future,” Barclay’s aerospace and defence team wrote last month. The increasing margins in digital identity and security “will be key to raising the value of Thales’ shares”.
Thales shares have gained 18 per cent over the past 12 months, since roughly the start of the pandemic, but Barclays argues it remains “very very cheap for a company focused on engineering and software development” and still trades “like a defence stock”.
Caine disagrees, saying that those who want to see the group specialise further but who also like the protection of diversification are trying “to have their cake and eat it”.