Cyberwarfare in Russia/Ukraine

I wrote the following based off two articles Professor Festinger had mentioned in March 8th Communications Class regarding the cyberwarfare by Russia against Ukraine.

What is Cyberwarfare?
Cyberwarfare is the use of computer technology to disrupt the activities of a state or organisation. It involves the deliberate attacking of information systems for strategic or military purposes. Cyber attacks can cause electrical blackouts, failure of military equipment and breaches of national security secrets.

Example – Russia/Ukraine
As well as attacking on the ground, Russia has been using cyberwarfare tactics in its invasion of Ukraine. This is not the first time that Russian hackers have been tied to attacks in Ukraine. In 2015, after Russian invasion of the Crimean Peninsula, Russian hackers knocked out electric power for around 230,000 customers in Western Ukraine. This happened again the following year to government agencies and the banking system in Ukraine. Most recently, Ukraine was hit particularly hard by a malware which is designed to wipe data. It has been argued that Russia has been using the war with Ukraine as a “live testing ground” for its next generation of cyber weapons and there is a real worry about a potential global cyberwar. This could be extremely destructive given the interdependence of critical infrastructure sectors and there is a potential to lose clean water, electricity and financial markets.

The Canadian government’s Communications Security Establishment Cyber Centre has noted that although is not aware of any “current specific threats to Canadian organizations in relation to events in and around Ukraine,” there has been an “historical pattern of cyber attacks on Ukraine having international consequences.” For example, in 2017 Russian hackers launched a ransomware attack in Ukraine known as “NotPetya” which encrypted any data it reached, leaving the data’s unsuspecting owner locked out from accessing their own files. Victims were told to pay a ransom of $300 bitcoin if they wanted access to their data. But the ransomware attack spread beyond Ukraine’s borders and infected computer networks of companies around the world supposedly resulting in more than $10 billion in total loss in damages. The NotPeta attack is now regarded as one of the worst cyberattacks in modern history.

Government’s do seem to be slightly better prepared to retaliate to cyber attacks – according to President Biden, the US can and will launch cyberattacks on Russia, but only if Russia attacks the US first. However, there is more of a worry that the private sector in particular is not sufficiently prepared to protect itself against cyberattacks. It has been argued that many companies simply view cybersecurity programs as “a line item on a budget sheet” which can leave them vulnerable to disruption. Individuals are at potential cybersecurity risk too and it has been recommended that individuals ensure their online presence is secured. Some ways to do so are basic e.g. giving yourself strong passwords, enabling two factor authentications and keeping systems updated.

Other forms of retaliation have been through smaller groups. For example, over 311,000 people have joined a group called “IT Army of Ukraine”. Not all members are from Ukraine but a significant number are. They are splitting their time between doing their day jobs and fighting the cyber war with Russia. The group has helped carry out multiple cyberattacks since the war started by targeting Russian government websites, banks and currency exchanges. These people can be seen as serving Ukraine “on the digital frontline”. The hacktivist collective Anonymous have also gotten involved in the cyberwar. They claim to have successfully infiltrated Russian state TV to show citizens the devastation of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. They also hacked 92 Russian databases which belonged to retailers, Russia internet providers and intergovernmental websites. Many files were erased, and hundreds of folders were renamed to things including “putin_stop_this_war” and “glory_to_ukraine”.

Solution – Pull Russia Offline?
It could be argued that a better and simpler solution here would be for Russia to be excluded from the internet. However, the Internet Society has argued that this goes against fundamental principle that the internet is for everyone. They argue that the internet allows people who otherwise would be silenced to speak; that the idea of unplugging a country is as wrong as when governments wish to do it to their own people; and that all should have access to the internet since it is “the greatest communication tool ever invented.” While these principles make sense in the long run, it can be argued that given the gravity of the current situation – i.e. that WWIII could break out/a global cyberwar could start – it may be a wise decision to remove Russia from the internet. To do so would take away a large part of their power in cyberwarfare.

Further, it can be argued that the internet is already splintered. Indeed, the Western internet looks much different to China’s where they have the Great Firewall. Thus, it can be said that such an internet is for everyone approach is unrealistic and is not a sufficient reason to keep Russia online given the current circumstances. In the short term, it would be wise to pull Russia offline.


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