Hack, misinform, deny: Russia’s cybersecurity strategy
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Over the years, Moscow has faced numerous allegations of cyber attacks that have resulted in multiple sanctions and the expulsion of its diplomats. The term “hacker” has almost become synonymous with Russia.
From “troll factories” to hackers supposedly controlled by the country’s security services, here’s a look at the world of Russian cybercrime:
– Skills –
Russia has been fertile ground for computer experts for decades. In Soviet times, the government pushed for advancements in science and technology and – with the appearance of the first computers – in programming.
With the fall of the USSR in 1991, some of the talented but underpaid programmers turned to cybercrime, soon making Russians famous for credit card theft around the world.
“In the 90s, the environment fermented, with a culture of resourcefulness and a tendency to bend the rules,” said Kevin Limonier, of the French Institute of Geopolitics.
– Army and security services –
Experts say that in its persistent confrontation with the West, Russia relies heavily on its cyber and information warfare capabilities.
Several notorious hacker groups are suspected of working for the country’s security services, and the Russian Defense Ministry established its own “cyber units” in 2012.
The first large-scale attack attributed to Russia dates back to 2007, when the Baltic state of Estonia faced a wave of cyber attacks against its newspapers, banks and ministries.
The United States says Russian Military Intelligence Hackers (GRU) sought to manipulate the 2016 presidential election by hacking the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
The most well-known cyber espionage group involved in dozens of cases is known as the Fancy Bear or APT28. It is believed to be sponsored by the Russian government.
According to Washington, the attack on US software developer SolarWinds was carried out by SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, and compromised government agencies and hundreds of private companies.
– Information and sabotage –
“Cyber attacks carried out by the Russian secret services are part of multi-year international operations aimed at obtaining strategic information,” German intelligence services said in 2016, referring to espionage and sabotage operations.
The list of alleged Russian attacks is long: a hacking attack on the German parliament in 2015; targeting Ukrainian artillery units between 2014 and 2016; pirating of a French television channel in 2015; interfere in the 2016 and 2020 US elections, and target coronavirus vaccine research institutes in the West in 2020.
Experts say the attacks are getting more sophisticated.
“The level of Russian cyberattacks is increasing compared to three or four years ago,” intelligence expert Andrei Soldatov said.
“We know the operations that have been discovered, but there is still a lot to do.”
– Disinformation –
Russia has also been accused of carrying out large-scale disinformation campaigns in order to influence democratic processes in the West and fuel social discord online.
The country is believed to operate online “troll factories” that concoct viral fake news in an attempt to influence internet users.
The accusations were directed against both state media including RT (ex-Russia Today) and Kremlin allies like Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman believed to be behind the “troll factories” in Russia and Africa.
Washington accused President Vladimir Putin’s ally of funding the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg-based company that sought to influence the American electorate in 2016.
– Denial –
Realizing that the nature of cyber attacks makes their origins difficult to trace, the Kremlin has always denied any involvement and accused the West of waging a war of disinformation against Russia.
Russia has also repeatedly affirmed its desire to cooperate in the field of the cyber sphere.
In the run-up to the 2020 US presidential elections, Putin proposed an electoral non-interference pact and a global deal against the misuse of communications technology.
The proposal went unanswered.
Soldatov said Russia could use hacking attacks to force the West to cooperate.
He did not rule out that, faced with the Russian threat and for lack of a better alternative, “the police in Europe and the United States might wish to resume cooperation with Russia in matters of cybersecurity”.
© 2021 AFP