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CWA # 723, 19 April 2022
NIAS Fortnightly on Science, Technology and International Relations (STIR)
Vol 1, No. 20, 19 April 2022
NIAS Fortnightly on Science, Technology and International Relations (STIR)
Ukraine: The Recurring Russian Cyberattacks
Jeshil Samuel J
The cyberattacks on Ukraine are not a new phenomenon; however, the large scale Ukrainian and global retaliation are. The Russian cyberattacks on Ukraine before the invasion have brought its hybrid warfare strategy to the limelight. The problem of attribution and governance in cyberspace has yet again surfaced, and the international community does not seem to have an answer.
On 24 February, the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. However, experts had predicted a series of cyberattacks from Moscow even before the physical invasion started. In early January, Russian state-sponsored cyber groups relentlessly targeted Ukrainian cyberspace. The attacks have ranged from simple webpage defacements to large scale DDOS (Distributed Denial of Service) and ransomware attacks.
Russia- Ukraine Cyberattacks: A profile
On 11 January, multiple government agencies in the US (Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Security Agency, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency) issued an advisory on Russian state-sponsored cyber operations in Ukraine. The advisory consisted of mitigation and detection strategies to protect the victims of state-sponsored cyberattacks.
On 14 January, multiple Ukrainian websites (private and government-run) were defaced and brought down by suspected Russian hackers. Close to seventy official websites were hit during the attack. The website of the Ukrainian Cabinet, Ministry of External Affairs and Education Ministry was forced to shut down for a brief period. A few Ukrainian websites were hijacked, and hackers displayed messages warning the Ukrainian government and the public to be prepared for the worst. In the aftermath of the large-scale attack, the European Union offered technical assistance to the Ukrainian government to restore their systems online.
On 15 January, Microsoft's Threat Intelligence Centre (MSTIC) released a technical post that analyzed a new malware known as WhisperGate. WhisperGate was a sophisticated wiper malware (malware that deletes data on the victim's system) that prominently targetted Ukrainian entities. The malware was found in Ukrainian systems on 13 January. The malware also disguised itself as ransomware to avoid drawing attention.
On 16 and 18 January, the Ukrainian government blamed the Russian government for conducting large-scale cyberattacks. The Ukrainian government also released a statement saying that multiple government agencies had lost data due to a malware attack on their systems.
The Ministry of Digital Transformation mentioned that the cyberattacks were part of Russia's hybrid warfare strategy.
On 15 February, Ukraine's Defence Ministry and two major banks were hit by DDOS attacks. On the same day, a declassified intelligence report revealed that Russian state-sponsored hackers had infiltrated the networks of the Ukrainian military and energy sector.
On 23 February, researchers from cybersecurity firms ESET and Symantec found a second wiper malware in Ukrainian systems. The new malware was dubbed HermeticWiper. Hackers used the malware to target Ukrainian financial institutions and government contractors primarily. The hackers deployed the malware and massive DDOS attacks to make it difficult for cybersecurity experts to prevent. Moreover, according to researchers, the malware was created well in advance and had similarities to the earlier found WhisperGate malware.
On 24 February, before the Russian troops entered Ukraine, the world's largest commercial satellite company Viasat suffered a massive cyberattack. The multifaceted cyberattack temporarily disabled broadband services for thousands of Ukrainians. On the same day, the Russian National Computer Incident Response and Coordination Center warned businesses and the public about cyberattacks targetting Russian cyberspace. The Kremlin's website and other key Russian government websites were shut down by hackers using DDOS attacks.
Targeting Ukraine's Cyberspace
The recent cyberattacks on Ukraine are not the first time Russia has weaponized cyberspace. Russian state-sponsored cyberattacks have been carried out by Russian Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) groups since 2004. APT is a highly sophisticated threat actor who uses cyberspace for acts of espionage, coercion, theft, dissent and terrorism. APTs are usually state-sponsored due to the scale of their operations and their high-value targets. Despite Russia constantly denying any connection, cybersecurity firms have associated APTs such as Nobelium, Turla, Strontium, and Sandworm with the Russian military intelligence wing, General Staff of the Armed Forces (GRU) and the Federal Security Services (FSB).
Russian cyberattacks on Ukraine date back to 2014 with the Russian annexation of Crimea. Soon after the annexation, Russia began supporting rebel groups in eastern Ukraine and along with this support came a spew of cyberattacks defacing Ukrainian websites and spreading Russian propaganda. In the same year, Russian state-sponsored hackers attacked the Election Commission of Ukraine to rig the presidential elections. Though the initial attack was successful, Ukrainian officials later discovered the hack and prevented the wrong candidate from winning the election.
In 2015, Russian state-sponsored hackers went on to target Ukrainian critical infrastructures. In December 2015, for example, a Russian APT known as SandWorm began targeting the Ukrainian power grid using its BlackEnergy malware. The malware allowed hackers to control parts of the power grid remotely. Through the attack, SandWorm shut down the entire power grid of Kyiv for six hours, thereby affecting nearly 2.3 lakh Ukrainian citizens. In 2016, a similar attack was carried out by Russian hackers where almost 20 per cent of Kyiv's power grid was turned off for more than six hours. In both these instances, the attack on power grids directly led to the loss of lives due to the subfreezing temperatures in Kyiv.
In 2017, another Russian APT known as FancyBear caused havoc to Ukrainian systems using the infamous NotPetya ransomware. Ransomware is malicious software that encrypts data on a victim's system until a ransom amount is paid. The NotPetya ransomware was primarily used to target Ukrainian government offices, newspapers, media houses, health services and banks. However, the ransomware ended up targeting systems outside Ukraine, causing massive losses to businesses worldwide. The total estimated cost of the damage caused by the NotPetya ransomware is estimated to be around USD 10 billion.
Cyberwarfare as a security tool
Russian hackers regularly target other countries for monetary gains and steal confidential data. The ransomware business, for example, is a lucrative industry within Russia. However, in Ukraine, Russian interests are different. Cyberattacks on Ukrainian cyberspace prove that Russian hackers are not in it for monetary benefits. Russian hackers have targeted Ukrainian interests for the following reasons.
First, to promote the Russian government's interests. The Russian government has turned a blind eye toward cybercriminals and ransomware gangs operating from Russia for their allegiance to the government. Hackers and cybercrime groups operating from Russia follow certain principles, such as not targeting Russian businesses or citizens and helping the Russian government target individuals or state actors whenever needed. Cyberattacks on specific critical infrastructures such as power grids and water treatment facilities could be very costly for the Ukrainian government to fix. Using cyberattacks and ransomware attacks (in particular), the Russian government could also target the Ukrainian financial sector and create an alternate revenue stream to circumvent the heavy sanctions imposed by the West. Cyberspace has also been pivotal in acting as a propaganda machine for the Russian government during the conflict. From posting pro-Russian signs and messages on Ukrainian government websites to creating online forums for pro-Russian protestors and rebels, the Russian government has meticulously utilized cyberspace to promote its goals and agendas.
Second to conduct large-scale disinformation campaigns. Since the Cold War era, Russians have used disinformation campaigns to manipulate and distract the attention of their enemies. These disinformation campaigns could be in the form of a state-owned news agency, malignant social media posts, fake news bulletins on television and radio shows, and conducting conferences to create false biases among the attendees. The PizzaGate scandal that broke out in the US during the 2016 Presidential elections is an excellent example of a Russian disinformation campaign using social media. The Russian secret service and military intelligence agencies have been closely associated with these disinformation campaigns making them harder to prevent and more potent on unaware citizens. According to the US Department of State, in the case of the recent Ukrainian conflict, Russia has been trying to spread disinformation, including Ukraine and Ukrainian government officials are the aggressors in the war, the West is pushing Ukraine to fight, the deployment of combat troops is just repositioning Russian forces within its borders, the US plans for chemical weapon attacks on Donbas, and NATO has plotted against Russia since the end of the Cold War.
Third, as a military strategy. The Russians had followed the idea of hybrid warfare during their invasion of Crimea in 2014, and it can be seen in the present invasion of Ukraine as well. The main attribute of hybrid warfare is the use of non-state actors to sow chaos and confusion among enemies. In this case, Russia uses hackers and ransomware gangs as its proxies. As a part of their military strategy in Crimea, the Russians used a series of cyberattacks to throw the Ukrainians off-guard. Once the Ukrainians were busy dealing with the confusion caused by the cyberattacks, the Russian military began ground operations in Crimea. This strategy allows countries like Russia to target bigger opponents or countries with stronger international support since none of the attacks can be entirely attributed back to Russia. Attribution of cyberattacks, in particular, are notoriously difficult to prove, and even the United Nations has been unable to resolve the issue of attribution in cyberspace. In the case of Ukraine, it was also in Russia's best interest to escalate tensions using cyberattacks since cyberattacks do not necessarily lead to physical confrontations. Russia could continue targeting Ukrainian critical infrastructure without fearing any kind of intervention from NATO or the EU.
Retaliation for the cyberattacks on Ukraine
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has made Russia a prime target for hacktivists worldwide. Hacktivists use cyberattacks or data thefts to expose entities that they feel are against their norms and values. For example, the infamous hacktivist group Anonymous publicly announced a cyberwarfare campaign against Putin and his allies on 1 March. Since then, the group has defaced multiple Russian government websites and stolen data from Russia's space agency Roscosmos. In another instance, a hacktivist group known as the Cyber Partisans attacked the railway system of Belarus using cyberattacks, paralyzing the railway lines between Minsk, Orsha and Osipovichi. The hacktivist group claimed that they had conducted the attacks to slow down the movement of Russian troops to Ukraine through Belarus.
Right after the physical invasion of Ukraine, the Ukrainian government started enrolling veteran cybersecurity experts to be part of its cyber army. The role of the cyber army was to bombard Russian websites with fake requests (DDOS) and collect critical information about Russian entities. The cyber army has grown exponentially, with even less experienced script kiddies (budding hackers) being given tasks to carry out daily. The Ukrainian cyber army and hacktivists worldwide have targeted Russian businesses, banks, media houses, and websites through large-scale cyber attacks. The targeting of Russian financial institutions, in particular, could be catastrophic for Russia when coupled with the economic sanctions imposed on the country. However, experts also fear that the use of cyberattacks by Ukraine would only push Russia to increase its cyber operations, and the use of script kiddies in the cyber army could lead to attacks on unintended targets, thus escalating the issue further.
Future of Cyberwars
First, an increase in cyberattacks. In the immediate future, we can see a drastic increase in the number of cyberattacks faced by both Russia and Ukraine. The cyber attacks from the Ukrainian side would be oriented towards shaming and threatening Russian entities. In contrast, the attacks from the Russian side would be more focused on Ukrainian critical infrastructure. The cyberattacks will continue to persist despite ceasefires and peace talks occurring in the physical world. Russia will continue its disinformation campaigns in Ukraine using cyberspace in the long run. Russia's recruitment of new rebels in the Donbas region could also be facilitated using cyberspace.
Second, the rapid increase of cybercriminals. During times of war, the economies of both parties involved get affected. The ease of doing business, for example, has taken a hit during conflicts. In the case of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, both countries will suffer economically even after the war ends. Russia would suffer mainly because of the crippling sanctions, and Ukraine would have to bear the brunt of all the material losses and damages caused by the Russians. Unemployment rates will increase, and people (specially trained in computer science) will resort to illegal means to earn a living. Cybercrime groups in Russia and Ukraine will see a surge since the ransomware industry is a booming field with high returns. Both governments will not bother to keep the cybercriminals in check if they do not meddle with their national interests.
Third, the intervention of allies and international organizations. Ukraine has already received assistance to recover from cyber attacks from the European Union. If the attacks continue to persist, countries in the region such as Estonia and Latvia would take an active role in helping Ukraine defend its cyberspace. Organizations such as the United Nations would request both parties to stop the cyber attacks and engage in a peaceful dialogue. In the case of Russia, China would be one of the major allies to get involved in attacking Ukrainian cyberspace. Even before Russia could launch cyberattacks on Ukraine, Chinese hackers had started targeting Ukrainian entities. Lastly, the UN may consider forming uniform international laws and norms to govern cyberspace. However, this is a distant dream since both the US, Russia, and China have differing opinions on how cyberattacks should be dealt with.
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About the author
Jeshil Samuel J is a postgraduate scholar from the Department of International Studies, CHRIST (Deemed to be University), Bengaluru currently enrolled at the NIAS Online Certificate Course on Contemporary Peace Processes.
By Rashmi Ramesh
IPCC Report: Emphasis on mitigation and climate action
On 4 April 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report titled "Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change". The report is prepared by the Working Group III of the IPCC and is part of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report scheduled to be released in September 2022. The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres remarked that the latest IPCC report is "a litany of broken promises" and added that "this is not a fiction or exaggeration. It is what science tells us will result from our current energy policies. We are on a pathway to global warming of more than double the 1.5-degree limit".
Following are the key takeaways. First, growing anthropogenic GHG emissions. The net emissions have increased since 1850, courtesy the industrial revolution. Human actions have further accelerated the process, and the total net anthropogenic GHG emissions have increased between 2010-19. There are clear regional and income variations in terms of the contribution to GHG emissions, with 10 per cent of households with the highest per capita income contributing the largest share of global emissions.
Second, rapid urbanization. Towns and cities have the lion's share of increasing emissions. Redesigning the cityscape with changes in transport system- from private electric vehicles to electric public transport system, reduction of distances that must be travelled, sustainable infrastructure and smart city plans are some of the key focus areas of the report.
Third, the warnings. The report highlights that the world is not on the course yet, to limit the temperature rise by the Paris Agreement.
Fourth, emphasis on the co-existence of sustainable development goals and mitigation efforts. The IPCC vice-chair Ramón Pichs-Madruga said: "we see that equity and just transitions can lead to deeper ambitions for accelerated climate action."
Fifth, the positives. The rate of growth of emissions between 2010-19 has been lower than the previous decade, from 2000-09. The cost of producing solar and wind energy has reduced by nearly 85 per cent since 2010, though it is nowhere near to replacing the non-renewables. The report also takes a positive note on the visible climate action being undertaken in many countries. The IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee said that "there are policies, regulations and market instruments that are proving effective. If these are scaled up and applied more widely and equitably, they can support deep emission reductions and stimulate innovation."
In comparison to the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the IPCC, the Working Group reports of the AR6 emphasizes on the "unequivocal human influence" on the earth's system. This provides more impetus to already loud calls to formally recognize the end of Holocene and the beginning of the Anthropocene epoch.
For the first time, an IPCC report has included a chapter on the social aspects of climate change. The chapter titled "Demand, Services and Social Aspects of Mitigation" emphasizes on the demand-side of intervention, such as the use of public transport networks, energy-efficient homes, encouraging people for using cleaner modes of cooling and movement. In other words, there is a focus on motivating people to change consumption patterns which can potentially reduce GHG emissions between 40 to 70 per cent by 2050. ("Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change", IPCC, 04 April 2022; "Explained: What are the takeaways from the latest IPCC report on climate change?", The Hindu, 10 April 2022; "Explained: What is the IPCC, and why are its Assessment Reports important?", The Indian Express, 05 April 2022; Kieran Mulvaney, "It's now or never: UN climate report's 4 urgent takeaways", National Geographic, 05 April 2022)
By Harini Madhusudan and Akriti Sharma
CLIMATE AND ENVIRONMENT
The US: Arctic bases sinking due to climate change
On 16 April, The Associated Press reported that the US military bases in the Arctic and sub-Arctic are failing to prepare for installations because of climate change. The roads and the bases are sinking and cracking due to the thawing of permafrost. Earlier, the US military had recognized climate change as a threat to national security. Additionally, wildfires, storms, hurricanes, and floods have added to the interruptions in the training, installations and other operations. Earlier, in October 2021, Pentagon had called for incorporating global warming in the strategic planning and training of troops to manage their water supplies and deal with heat injuries. (Ellen Knickmeyer, "Pentagon climate plan: war-fighting in hotter, harsher world," The Associated Press, 16 April 2022)
Environment: Antarctic ice shelves collapsed because of hot air from the Pacific
On 14 April, according to the researchers reported by the New York Times, the rapid collapse of the ice shelves in the Antarctic was due to the warm moisture laden air from the Pacific Ocean. In 1995, Larsen A and in 2002 Larsen B shelves disintegrated. It has been found that the warming up of the planet over the years had weakened and fractured the ice shelves, resulting in their collapse. According to a climatologist and meteorologist at the Université Grenoble Alpes reported by the New York Times said: "We identify atmospheric rivers as a mechanism that can create extreme conditions over the ice shelves of the Antarctic Peninsula and potentially lead to their destabilization," He added: "The only reason why melting has not been significant so far is because it's just farther south compared to the others, therefore colder," The researchers are now fearing that Larsen C is also at risk of collapsing.(Henry Fountain, "Why Did Two Antarctic Ice Shelves Fail? Scientists Say They Now Know," The New York Times, 14 April 2022)
Tunisia: Diesel tank sinks
On 16 April, a diesel carrying tanker carrying 750 tonnes of fuel sank in southeastern Tunisia. On 15 April, the crew had made an emergency call due to bad weather which the cause of the sinking. The tanker was sailing from Egypt to Malta when it sank in the Gulf of Gabes. Environment Minister Leila Chikhaoui said that the situation was "under control". The Environment Ministry said: "to evaluate the situation … and take necessary preventive decisions in coordination with the regional authorities," However, the oil leakage had not begun and authorities are discovering ways to pump out the oil from the tanker which would be a challenging task. ("Diesel tanker sinks off Tunisia risking environmental disaster," The Guardian, 16 April 2022)
South Africa: Devastating floods in KwaZulu-Natal province
On 19 April, the government of South Africa sent 10,000 troops to KwaZulu-Natal province to manage the devastating impact of the floods. As of 19 April, 440 people have died, and 63 are missing. The government has declared floods a national disaster. South African National Defence Force (SANDF) said that the troops would assist in rescue operations. The floods have damaged essential infrastructure including roads, water and electricity, bridges, schools and hospitals. On 18 April, President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation and announced many measures to address the situation. He said that the government will "spare no expense" to to provide assistance and rebuild the infrastructure. According to the officials, the floods in the KwaZulu-Natal region are the worst floods in the history of South Africa owing to the magnitude of damage.("KwaZulu-Natal floods: South Africa army sends 10,000 troops," BBC, 19 April 2022)
The UK: Valneva vaccine approved
On 16 April, a new COVID-19 vaccine was approved in the UK manufactured by Valneva. The manufacturing of the vaccine has been done using more traditional technology similar to polio and flu vaccines. It contains an inactivated copy of the virus so that it can teach the body to fight the virus. Earlier, the government canceled the deal which was supposed to deliver 100 million vaccines due to breach of obligations. Similar to the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines, Valneva also requires two doses. During trials the people had more neutralizing antibodies which outnumbered the AstraZeneca vaccine. The vaccine can prove to be revolutionary for the global efforts to fight the pandemic. ("Valneva Covid vaccine approved for use in UK," BBC, 16 April 2022)
China: Chinese crew returns to Earth after spending 182 days in orbit
On 16 April, three Chinese astronauts returned after spending a national record of up to 182 days in Orbit, marking China's second crewed space station mission. The astronauts spent six months aboard the Tianhe which is the core module for China's space station that is under construction. While they were abroad, they are said to have conducted many extravehicular activities of 12 hours and 36 minutes, hosted live science lectures for students on Earth, and carried out a range of science experiments and technology tests. The crew returned on Shenzhou-3, and was the first time that China employed a 'rapid return' system cutting down the number of orbits to five from 11 after leaving Tianhe. The crew landed in nine hours after docking. (Andrew Jones, "Shenzhou-13 astronauts return to Earth after 182-day mission," SpaceNews, 16 April 2022)
Space: NROL-85 spy satellite launched by SpaceX
On 17 April, marking the 148th launch of the Falcon 9 and its 14th mission of 2022, the SpaceX rocket was used to launch NROL-85. SpaceX has received a contract from the US Air Force in 2019 to launch NROL-87 and NROL-85. The company has previously launched NRO satellites under such commercial contracts. The NRO series of the National Reconnaissance Office is known to build and operate classified US government surveillance and intelligence satellites. This marks the 61st mission launched by the agency since its existence was revealed in 1996. (Sandra Erwin, "SpaceX launches NROL-85 spy satellite for US National Reconnaissance Office," SpaceNews, 17 April 2022)
Ukraine-Russia War: AI facial recognition to identify the displaced in Ukraine War
On 13 April, BBC reported, how an otherwise controversial AI technology that is used for facial recognition is being used by the Ukrainian authorities in more than a thousand cases to identify individuals that are dead or displaced. In March, the company Clearview AI announced that they have given their technology to the Ukrainian government. Clearview is known to be a controversial company for its facial recognition system in the world. It owns a system called a "search engine for faces," which is a database created from billions of photos scraped from social media companies like Facebook or Twitter. And as Google helps with finding information with a string of words, this technology helps with a photo or a face. This controversial site has been on legal battles with big tech companies and governments for their data procurement strategies, and its usage in active-war has raised many legal questions. (James Clayton, "How facial recognition is identifying the dead in Ukraine," BBC, 13 April 2022)
Cryptocurrency: Gamers targeted by North Korean hackers
On 15 April, investigators from the US, linked a group of North Korea backed hackers to a massive cryptocurrency heist that targeted players of the game Axie Infinity. In the game, the players could earn crypto through gameplay or by trading their avatars. It is alleged that a group named "Lazarus" which is believed to be controlled by the North Korean government were involved in the breach that hacked USD 615 million from the players. Lazarus are previously known for their 2014 heist when they were accused for hacking Sony Pictures and leaking confidential information. ("North Korean hackers target gamers in $615m crypto heist - US," BBC, 15 April 2022)
Twitter: Board pondering 'poison pill' against Musk bid
On 17 April, the Twitter board pulled a move to arm itself against a possible 'hostile' takeover. This move was made after Elon Musk publicly announced his intent to buy the platform at USD 43 billion. Twitter will adopt a "poison pill" or a "limited-duration shareholder rights plan." This will prevent anyone from having more than 15 per cent stake in the company. Twitter also released a statement that called Musk's plan, 'unsolicited, non-binding proposal to acquire Twitter,' with no attempts made to negotiate with the company. The "poison pill" is like a nuclear option for businesses, and the current plan for twitter is expected to expire on 14 April 2023. ("Twitter board takes action to fight Musk bid," BBC, 17 April 2022)
About the authors
Harini Madhusudan, Rashmi Ramesh, and Akriti Sharma are PhD scholars at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS.
NIAS Africa Team
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