Action union or hack? Four former RTE technicians tried in Paris

Attention, voltage test! On Tuesday, February 28, four former RTE electric carrier technicians appeared in court on three charges related to computer hacking – obstruction, implementation and modification of an automated data processing system.

At the end of June and the end of July 2022, on the sidelines of two trade union actions to demand higher wages, the electric carrier stated that the remote control of 25 electrical substations in the North, on the territory of the Flandres Hainaut network maintenance group, had ceased.

“No response from management”

At the end of the legal investigation commissioned by DGSI, four RTE agents who are thirty years old after being fired were implicated. They were part of a team of 18 agents responsible for the maintenance, protection and remote control of the electrical network.

“We didn’t have a response from the salary negotiation management,” one of the defendants at the helm justified. “This action was not insignificant, but we did not think that it would take on such a scale,” adds another.

True, RTE management already has experience of losing telecontrol during trade union actions. “This is a symbolic act that has been practiced for a long time and is tolerant of the company, since it is carried out in accordance with the rules of the game and does not affect the distribution of electricity,” said Jean-Francois Lejeune, an expert quoted by the defense.

Case filed for sabotage

“When there is a local seizure, the strikers call the control room, but there it was impossible to identify these stops as a trade union maneuver,” retorts the legal director of RTE. With no claim, the company is surprised by the remote shutdown of posts in the early mornings of June and July. This prompted her to report the computer intrusion to the court.

Result: The legal file was originally directed to qualify computer sabotage, a very serious charge, since it was abandoned. This is the only cybercrime that exists in France and other cybercrimes qualify as misdemeanors.

It was a “high working hypothesis” justified given the sensitivity of the victim organisation, a vital operator, explains Deputy Prosecutor Sophie Gschwind at the hearing, who ultimately demanded a six-eight-month suspended prison sentence and a €7,000 fine.

Signal Group and Excel Formula

“We knew from the very beginning that the four former RTE agents could not be qualified as saboteurs,” booms Jerome Karsenty, a lawyer for one of the defendants. “It’s the spirit of the times to punish any form of social mobilization,” he adds. This fear of criminalizing the right to strike was shared by the CGT, with trade union activists demonstrating in support in front of the Paris courthouse.

As the investigation will show, the four agents actually programmed the telecontrol stop in advance. After connecting to the substations, they entered the system command “Turn off” along with the number. That is, for so many seconds before stopping. To calculate the time needed to stop all stations at the same time, one respondent shared an Excel formula.

The four men finally came to terms, creating a group of Signal messages a few weeks earlier, which were deleted from their phones prior to a police department hearing.

Risk Debate

The shutdown of the remote control of electrical substations, which caused the Parisian management to lose visibility and control of this small part of the network, forcing the company to send technicians to the site. But “there was no power outage and remote control was quickly restored,” says expert Jean-Francois Lejeune.

In contrast, for the RTE engineers cited by the company, the shutdowns risked blackouts and creating a domino effect that could block power distribution to England or Belgium. The decision was reserved.

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