France gearing up to protect against cyber and conventional attacks at Paris 2024

France gearing up to protect against cyber and conventional attacks at Paris 2024
Police officers watch from a boat on 8 May 2024 as the 'Belem', a three-masted sailing ship that carries the Olympic Flame, sails to the Old Port in Marseille ahead of the Paris 2024 Olympics. (Photo: Reuters / Benoit Tessier)

France and specifically Paris are gearing up to face unprecedented security challenges threatening the 2024 Olympic Games.

About 50 khaki-clad men riding atop a black armoured truck approached an abandoned office building on the outskirts of Paris one spring morning and blew open a second-storey window with an explosive device.

After clearing shards of glass from the window frame, they shuffled through the gaping hole and into the graffiti-covered building in search of hostages – in reality junior members of the Gendarmerie – held inside.

The training exercise, held in preparation for the 26 July to 22 August Olympic Games in Paris, was one of the final dress rehearsals for an event nobody wants to happen.

Founded 50 years ago after the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, in which 11 Israelis died in an attack by a Palestinian militant group, the GIGN is one of France’s elite tactical units, responsible for freeing hostages, counterterrorism operations and other high-stake raids.

Should such an incident occur at the Games, which became more real with the arrival of the Olympic torch in Marseille this week, the GIGN will be summoned.

Sharpshooters will be installed on the roofs of the grand buildings that line the Seine, with forces also deployed below the city streets.

Ghislain Rety, commander of the GIGN, said his team was ready.

“It would be dishonest to say there is no risk, but it is minimised as much as possible,” he said.

Rety acknowledged a certain symmetry between the GIGN’s origin story and its Olympic mission but hoped the force could celebrate its anniversary without being called into action.

Paris has been on high alert since 2015 Islamist attacks that killed 130 people and injured hundreds more. Still, the Olympics, and particularly the opening ceremony, represent a security challenge like no other.

With 300,000 people watching from the river banks and millions more tuning in on TV, the ceremony is due to take place on barges along a 6km stretch of the Seine, which snakes through Paris.

Wars in Ukraine and Gaza have complicated security planning, and French President Emmanuel Macron has floated potentially scrapping the river ceremony and reverting to back-up plans.

Rety said the GIGN would place two men – in plain clothes, so as not to distress spectators – on each of the barges carrying athletes, with 350 GIGN officers assigned to the opening ceremony.

Sharpshooters will be installed on the roofs of the grand buildings that line the Seine, with forces also deployed below the city streets.

In all, about 50,000 French police and soldiers will secure Paris during the Games, with additional help from a few thousand foreign security officials.

The GIGN, which typically undertakes eight operations a day across France and the rest of the world, has been preparing for the Olympics for about 18 months, Rety said.

One of the main difficulties had been coordination with other French forces and with foreign delegations.

“But we like complication,” he said. “It’s a nice challenge.”

As the training exercise wound up, a camouflaged chopper landed on top of the building and picked up the GIGN officers, who attached themselves to a rope.

It then took off, dangling the men over the suburbs of Paris before they were deposited, one by one, back in the office car park.

Paris 2024 security

French police officers patrol the streets in the Old Port in Marseille before the arrival of the Olympic flame on 8 May 2024. (Photo: Reuters / Denis Balibouse)


The city and the country are also getting ready to face an unprecedented challenge in terms of cybersecurity, with organisers expecting a huge pressure on the Games this summer.

Organised crime, activists and states will be the main threats during the Olympics and the 28 August to 8 September Paralympics.

We’re expecting the number of cyber security events to be multiplied by 10 compared to Tokyo.

Paris 2024, who have been working hand in hand with the French national agency for information security (ANSSI), and cybersecurity companies Cisco and Eviden are looking to limit the impact of cyberattacks.

“We can’t prevent all the attacks, there will not be Games without attacks, but we have to limit their impacts on the Olympics,” Vincent Strubel, the director-general of ANSSI, told reporters.

“There are 500 sites, competition venues and local collectives, and we’ve tested them all.”

Strubel is confident that Paris 2024, who will operate from a cybersecurity operation centre in a location that is being kept secret, will be ready.

“The Games are facing an unprecedented level of threat, but we’ve also done an unprecedented amount of preparation work, so I think we’re a step ahead of the attackers,” he said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Olympics-Paris 2024 organisers to invite 222,000 spectators to opening ceremony

To make sure they are in the game, Paris 2024 have been paying “ethical hackers” to stress-test their systems and have been using artificial intelligence to help them do a triage of the threats.

“AI helps us make the difference between a nuisance and a catastrophe,” said Franz Regul, managing director for IT at Paris 2024.

“We’re expecting the number of cyber security events to be multiplied by 10 compared to Tokyo (in 2021).”

Massive change

“In terms of cybersecurity, four years is the equivalent of a century,” Eric Greffier, head of partnerships at Cisco, explained.

In 2018, a computer virus dubbed “Olympic Destroyer” was used in an attack on the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Games.

While Moscow denied any involvement, the US Justice Department in 2020 said it had indicted six Russian intelligence agency hackers for a four-year hacking spree that included attacks against the Pyeongchang Games.

“We would like to have one opponent but we’re looking into everything and everyone. Naming the potential attackers is not our role, it is the role of the state,” Strubel said.

Last month, Macron said he had no doubt Russia would malevolently target the Paris Olympics.

The Games will take place amid a complex global backdrop, including Russia’s war in Ukraine and Israel’s conflict with Hamas, which has been designated a terrorist organisation by the US and the European Union. Reuters/DM


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