TIPP Insights: Bracing for Russian cyberattack

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By tippinsights Editorial Board, TIPP Insights

The Russian invasion of Ukraine continues. Sanctions imposed on Russia are crippling its economy and choking its funds. Yet, President Putin seems to be in no hurry to end his unilateral and illegal invasion of its neighbor. Political and defense analysts believe that the Russian President is more likely to retaliate against the Western sanctions and escalate the crisis rather than show signs of weakness or admit defeat.

In this scenario, a bulletin from the FBI, dated March 18, carries a lot of weight. It stated that more than 140 Russian–based IP addresses are currently conducting “abnormal scanning activity,” which “likely indicates early stages of reconnaissance, scanning networks for vulnerabilities for use in potential future intrusions.” The “abnormal scanning” activity is linked to American energy companies and those in defense, financial services, and information technology.

Modern warfare is unlikely to remain contained to land, air, or sea. The internet, and by extension, companies and activities that rely on its use and service, has become a whole new dimension that needs to be safeguarded against malicious attacks. Cybercrimes are increasingly being used as a weapon either by the state or those acting at their behest.

The possibility of Russia turning to cyber war has been discussed since the day Russian soldiers crossed into Ukraine territory. The hacking of Viasat’s KA-SAT internet satellite, which provides services to residences and militaries worldwide, on the day of the Russian invasion, led to speculation that Moscow may have orchestrated or carried out the attack.

Jason Crow (D –CO), who serves on the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Cyber, Innovative Technologies, and Information Systems, believes that should Moscow turn to cyberwar in an attempt to retaliate against the West’s support of Ukraine, it would target banks, financial institutions, and other vital economic sectors. Instead of a direct attack on a large firm, which has the resources to safeguard its networks and data and stay abreast of security protocols, the hackers are likely to target smaller firms with limited resources connected to larger organizations. Mindful of such tactics, in November 2021, the House passed the SBA Cyber Awareness Act, which assesses the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) cybersecurity infrastructure and creates a plan to improve it.

The U.S. administration has been systematically preparing to protect the country’s networks and critical sectors. Critical infrastructure companies must report “cybersecurity intrusions to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency within 24 hours after paying a ransom and 72 hours of an attack.” The information will allow the agency to stay abreast of attack patterns and provide effective warnings of future threats.

Besides upgrading infrastructure, the U.S. government is also pursuing efforts to improve international rules that assign accountability for such attacks. Though the Russian invasion has stalled the talks, surprisingly, Moscow has indicated that they could resume. Moscow’s special representative for cooperation in the field of information security, Andrey Krutskikh, says, “Ensuring international information security, therefore, becomes one of the key factors that directly influence strategic stability.”

For now, while the possibility of cyberattacks is genuine, the threat and urgency are primarily speculations. So far, though some Ukrainian companies and institutions have been hacked, their vital power grid and telecom networks continue to function. But, President Biden has spoken publicly about the likelihood of cyberattacks orchestrated by Moscow, making it clear that the administration is not turning a blind eye to the possibility. The advance warning could spur internet-dependent companies to run incident response simulations, disable unnecessary remote access options, and strengthen their security systems.

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has forewarned that cyberattacks on NATO countries could trigger a collective response. The President’s words that the U.S. “will continue to use every tool to deter, disrupt, and, if necessary, respond to cyberattacks against critical infrastructure” make America’s intentions clear.

The U.S. does not wish to escalate the conflict, but it has the resolve and resources to protect its cyberspace and, if necessary, disrupt that of its enemies.

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