Russia’s war in Ukraine is raising cyber risks worldwide

Experts say both the Kremlin and Russia-allied hackers may launch cyber attacks that cripple critical systems and business applications far beyond Ukraine.

Earth with data coming out

“The enemy isn’t halfway around the world; the enemy is a keystroke away.”

Image: Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

Cybersecurity experts have a warning for people in the U.S.: It’s time to install software patches, use multifactor authentication and strengthen your passwords.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has raised the possibility that a major cyberattack could affect U.S. and European systems, even though the fighting — which has occurred in both the real and digital worlds — so far hasn’t spilled far outside of the country’s borders.

As the war continues, however, both Russia’s own government hackers and also cybercriminals allied with Moscow will likely step up their attacks, potentially affecting systems worldwide, from widely used productivity tools to critical infrastructure such as power grids.

“The enemy isn’t halfway around the world; the enemy is a keystroke away,” Anton Dahbura, executive director of Johns Hopkins University’s Information Security Institute, told Protocol.

The risk is particularly serious because gray-market cybercriminals in Russia sometimes pursue government objectives on the side to keep law enforcement off their backs, Dahbura and others said. But as such groups don’t formally follow directives from the Kremlin, they could well go rogue.

“These groups can really be unleashed and act with impunity,” Dahbura said.

Already, for instance, the Conti ransomware gang said it would strike at the critical infrastructure of anyone launching cyberattacks “or any war activities against Russia.”

Cyber criminals and government hackers could hit back at other countries’ efforts to punish Vladimir Putin and stop the invasion. Those efforts encompass massive economic sanctions, including the looming removal of some Russian banks from SWIFT, a messaging system for financial institutions. Several countries have also closed their airspace to Russian planes.

International organizations that are supporting Ukraine — like human rights groups or the hacker collective Anonymous — could become targets, as could social media companies cracking down on government disinformation.

“Russia has a long history of taking down an entire web host or server cluster just to bring down a single site or application,” Chris Meserole, director of Research at the Brookings Institution’s Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative, told Protocol.

Additionally, even cyberattacks that are nominally aimed at Ukraine could end up having far-reaching consequences if the effect of ill-targeted cyber weapons spreads into related regions or systems. The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and FBI said in a joint warning over the weekend that they expect that may happen: “Further disruptive cyberattacks against organizations in Ukraine are likely to occur and may unintentionally spill over to organizations in other countries,” they wrote.

Digital attacks have already been taking place: Ukrainian government, foreign ministry and state service websites went down before Russia’s invasion, and a “wiper” attack was also used against a Ukrainian government agency and a financial institution.

“Since there’s so much shared infrastructure in the world, the likelihood of that spilling over and affecting other people is very high,” said Sean Gallagher, senior threat researcher at cybersecurity company Sophos. “The internet knows no boundaries.”

The 2017 NotPetya ransomware attack, which began in Ukraine and was eventually attributed to Russia by the U.S. and others, got out of hand and spread worldwide, for instance. The same year, North Korea launched the WannaCry attack that eventually affected systems in 150 countries.

“We have seen multiple cases where cyberweapons like that have gone out of control … and spread themselves,” Gallagher said. “That’s a distinct possibility here.”

Gallagher added that the breadth of systems at risk could be significant, potentially touching productivity tools such as Microsoft Teams or Slack that businesses worldwide rely on.

“These third-party services that we’ve all become dependent upon, during COVID especially, are pretty well-armed to defend themselves, but they are still vulnerable,” particularly if end users are careless, Gallagher said.

There are some reasons for optimism. For one, a lot of businesses in Ukraine haven’t moved their IT into the cloud despite the high number of tech workers in the country, Meserole said.

“Russian cyberattacks are likely to focus [on] on-premise servers within the country,” Meserole said. “As a result, targeted attacks on productivity software within Ukraine are unlikely to have massive effects elsewhere.”

All of that said, it’s not time to panic, the experts said: They’re not necessarily worried that Russia is readying new types of attacks that would require people in Europe and the U.S. to find novel defenses. Rather, the researchers say, there are already tremendous existing weaknesses in systems, and hackers allied with Russia will be looking more aggressively for openings or getting ready to exploit systems that they may already have infiltrated.

The experts also emphasized that putting in place basic cybersecurity hygiene can help — just as it’s crucial to keep washing your hands in real life.

Using strong passwords is important, as is minimizing the reuse of passwords. (A password manager can help with both.) Installing software updates and patches is crucial as well, as are turning on two-factor or multifactor authentication for logins and backing up computers.

It’s also always wise to be on guard against phishing attacks and to avoid clicking links and attachments you didn’t expect to receive.

“It’s amazing how far that will go,” said Dahbura.

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