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.


Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

Keep ReadingShow less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

Keep ReadingShow less
The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

Keep ReadingShow less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

Keep ReadingShow less
Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.


Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

Keep ReadingShow less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories