In Ukraine Crisis, Looming Threats of a Larger Cyberwar
Cyber attacks between Russia and Ukraine have already occurred, but have reportedly been limited in scope. However, with the propaganda war ramping up and tensions increasing, a threat of a large-scale cyber war looms over the region, just as the threat of a ground war continues.
Security forces in Ukraine have accused Russia of attacking the country's telecommunications systems with equipment installed in the Russian-controlled Crimea region, according to a recent Reuters report.
"I can confirm that an IP-telephonic attack is under way on mobile phones of members of the Ukrainian parliament for the second day in a row," said head of Ukraine's SBU security service Valentyn Nalivaichenko at a news briefing on Tuesday.
"At the entrance to Ukrtelecom in Crimea" (a Ukrainian telecommunications firm) "illegally and in violation of all commercial contracts was installed equipment that blocks my phone as well as the phones of other deputies, regardless of their political affiliation," Nalivaichenko continued. "The security services are now seeking to restore at least the security of communications," he said. "All state information security systems were unprepared for such a brazen violation of the law."
This action is actually relatively limited in scope, compared to massive denial of service cyber attacks Russia has previously used in Georgia in 2008, according to Quartz.
Ukraine hasn't been completely defenseless in the escalating tit-for-tat between the countries online. RT, the state-funded news agency formerly known as Russia Today, reported that its website was hacked over the weekend, according to Vice, with anti-Putin propaganda vandalizing headlines with the word "Nazi."
These hack attacks are part of the larger propaganda war, spreading misinformation and attempting to censor each side of the conflict. For example, some Russian social media sites have blocked access to pro-Ukrainian groups associated with the protest movement that led to the removal of erstwhile Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, much like what has happened in Venezuela.
The attacks from both sides of the conflict are increasing tensions, but have been rather reserved in scope.
"I wouldn't use the word 'war' when thinking about activities in the cyber front at this moment in Ukraine," said director of Cyber Security at Intel Security Jarno Limnéll to the Inquirer on Wednesday. "For sure in all today's conflicts and wars there are cyber elements, and if you want to be a critical player in today's world politics and in the military battlefield you have to process that as a reality," Limnéll said. "But the reality of what's going on over there is not war."
Limnéll said he expected the hacking and censorship associated with the propaganda war to continue to accelerate. But to for the online hostilities to constitute a "cyber war" would require full-scale cyber attacks against government services, critical infrastructure, and statewide communications facilities - something which has not been seen yet.
Why not? Some suggest that Russia is leery of counter-attacks from Ukraine, which has talented cyber warriors and a more sophisticated capability than, for example, Georgia. Another thing to consider is that only half of Ukraine's major internet pipelines come from Russia, so Russia disabling those it could wouldn't put Ukraine at a huge disadvantage.
Finally, it might just be the threat of actual war that could be keeping both sides to the relatively limited conflict zone of online propaganda and minor disruptions to communications -- and preventing any escalation in cyber attacks that could exacerbate the situation on the ground.
As Paul Rosenzweig, former Department of Homeland Security official and now a security consultant, reminded the BBC, "tanks beat cyber-bullets."
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