Putin may declare cyberwar on West in response to sanctions, target supply chain vulnerabilities: report

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Russia has reportedly unofficially declared cyberwar on the West, and according to one former top CIA official, it’s an expected consequence of the West’s sanctions.

Former CIA official Paul Kolbe, currently with the Belfer Center, told Fox News that the Russians view the sanctions “as a form of what they term ‘economic warfare.'” And so to them, using cyberattacks to wage “economic warfare” against the West is only fair.

“They certainly are in a position to launch cyberattacks on targets you might expect and targets you might not expect. I’d be particularly wary of attacks on targets that might affect supply chain vulnerabilities,” he added.

According to several major bank executives who spoke anonymously to Fox Business Network’s Charles Gasparino this week, the cyberwar has already begun. The evidence, they say, is a notable change in the cyberattack patterns they’re accustomed to seeing.

“The big US banks — JP Morgan, Citigroup, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs — are under constant attacks by cyber criminals looking to disrupt operations and steal client information. The usual suspects are most often located in Iran, China and of course Russia,” Gasparino reported Tuesday in the New York Post.

“Bank executives tell the Post they’ve spent billions of dollars annually to protect against cyber criminals, but they say the recent wave of attacks is different. Sources describe them as a subtle but intensified assault on banks’ technological infrastructure that began after the sanctions over Ukraine were announced.”

The first set of relatively lightweight sanctions came from U.S. President Joe Biden and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson after Russian President Vladimir Putin formally recognized the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine.

After Putin launched an invasion into Ukraine on Feb. 24th, the U.S. president expanded his sanctions “to deliver swift and severe consequences to the Kremlin and significantly impair their ability to use the Russian economy and financial system to further their malign activity,” as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen had put it.

Several days later, Biden turned the knob to high-powered by joining with the “U.K., Canada, and the European Commission” and “removing some Russian banks from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT, which 11,000 financial institutions globally use to send secure messages about financial transactions,” as reported by Fortune magazine.

This stunning move raised “the likelihood that Putin will respond against the west, including potentially with a wave of cyberattacks,” according to VentureBeat.

Indeed, in an email to the technology-focused news site, Rick Holland of the cybersecurity firm Digital Shadows said the SWIFT move “significantly increases the risks of state-executed or state-encouraged Russian cyberattacks against the West.”

Industry groups in the U.S. have thus far reportedly denied that anything is up, and the major banks have for their part refused to comment on the anonymous comments made to Gasparino.

However, one anonymous executive claimed that behind the scenes, “the industry consensus is that the Russia government is behind recent attacks,” according to Gasparino.

The good news is that the financial sector is reportedly the “best protected” industry because of all the money that’s already been spent to secure it. The bad news is that this leaves other industries, some of them vital, vulnerable.

“Other industries definitely at risk from attack. I think the water utility companies could be a weak spot as they’re not known for their cybersecurity,” Herb Lin of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University told Gasparino.

It doesn’t help that, as noted below by CrowdStrike cofounder Dmitri Alperovitch, Putin is fast approaching the point where he “has very little to lose”:

The worst-case scenario, according to Holland, would be Putin recruiting randomware cyber criminals to get involved, and the United States choosing to escalate.

“If Russia encourages or even incents cybercriminal targeting against Western companies, the threat level increases dramatically. There is also a risk of a potential escalatory spiral if the U.S. retaliates against these attacks,” he said.

Regardless, he continued, what’s clear is that “we need shields up right now, because the cyber threat level for the financial and energy sectors, in particular, is perhaps the highest it has been in years.”

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