The Aspen Institute has published a good analysis of the successes, failures, and absences of cyberattacks as part of the current war in Ukraine: “The Cyber Defense Assistance Imperative Lessons from Ukraine.”
Cyber defense assistance in Ukraine is working. The Ukrainian government and Ukrainian critical infrastructure organizations have better defended themselves and achieved higher levels of resiliency due to the efforts of CDAC and many others. But this is not the end of the road—the ability to provide cyber defense assistance will be important in the future. As a result, it is timely to assess how to provide organized, effective cyber defense assistance to safeguard the post-war order from potential aggressors.
The conflict in Ukraine is resetting the table across the globe for geopolitics and international security. The US and its allies have an imperative to strengthen the capabilities necessary to deter and respond to aggression that is ever more present in cyberspace. Lessons learned from the ad hoc conduct of cyber defense assistance in Ukraine can be institutionalized and scaled to provide new approaches and tools for preventing and managing cyber conflicts going forward.
I am often asked why where weren’t more successful cyberattacks by Russia against Ukraine. I generally give four reasons: (1) Cyberattacks are more effective in the “grey zone” between peace and war, and there are better alternatives once the shooting and bombing starts. (2) Setting these attacks up takes time, and Putin was secretive about his plans. (3) Putin was concerned about attacks spilling outside the war zone, and affecting other countries. (4) Ukrainian defenses were good, aided by other countries and companies. This paper gives a fifth reason: they were technically successful, but keeping them out of the news made them operationally unsuccessful.
Posted on February 23, 2023 at 7:27 AM •
They’re using commercial phones, which go through the Ukrainian telecom network:
“You still have a lot of soldiers bringing cellphones to the frontline who want to talk to their families and they are either being intercepted as they go through a Ukrainian telecommunications provider or intercepted over the air,” said Alperovitch. “That doesn’t pose too much difficulty for the Ukrainian security services.”
“Security has always been a mess, both in the army and among defence officials,” the source said. “For example, in 2013 they tried to get all the staff at the ministry of defence to replace our iPhones with Russian-made Yoto smartphones.
“But everyone just kept using the iPhone as a second mobile because it was much better. We would just keep the iPhone in the car’s glove compartment for when we got back from work. In the end, the ministry gave up and stopped caring. If the top doesn’t take security very seriously, how can you expect any discipline in the regular army?”
This isn’t a new problem and it isn’t a Russian problem. Here’s a more general article on the problem from 2020.
Posted on December 21, 2022 at 7:09 AM •
Mandiant is reporting on a trojaned Windows installer that targets Ukrainian users. The installer was left on various torrent sites, presumably ensnaring people downloading pirated copies of the operating system:
Mandiant uncovered a socially engineered supply chain operation focused on Ukrainian government entities that leveraged trojanized ISO files masquerading as legitimate Windows 10 Operating System installers. The trojanized ISOs were hosted on Ukrainian- and Russian-language torrent file sharing sites. Upon installation of the compromised software, the malware gathers information on the compromised system and exfiltrates it. At a subset of victims, additional tools are deployed to enable further intelligence gathering. In some instances, we discovered additional payloads that were likely deployed following initial reconnaissance including the STOWAWAY, BEACON, and SPAREPART backdoors.
One obvious solution would be for Microsoft to give the Ukrainians Windows licenses, so they don’t have to get their software from sketchy torrent sites.
Posted on December 20, 2022 at 7:30 AM •
The Ukrainian army has released an instructional video explaining how Russian soldiers should surrender to a drone:
“Seeing the drone in the field of view, make eye contact with it,” the video instructs. Soldiers should then raise their arms and signal they’re ready to follow.
After that the drone will move up and down a few meters, before heading off at walking pace in the direction of the nearest representatives of Ukraine’s army, it says.
The video also warns that the drone’s battery may run low, in which case it will head back to base and the soldiers should stay put and await a fresh one.
That one, too, should be met with eye contact and arms raised, it says.
Posted on December 19, 2022 at 7:09 AM •
The Russian hacking group Turla released an Android app that seems to aid Ukrainian hackers in their attacks against Russian networks. It’s actually malware, and provides information back to the Russians:
The hackers pretended to be a “community of free people around the world who are fighting russia’s aggression”—much like the IT Army. But the app they developed was actually malware. The hackers called it CyberAzov, in reference to the Azov Regiment or Battalion, a far-right group that has become part of Ukraine’s national guard. To add more credibility to the ruse they hosted the app on a domain “spoofing” the Azov Regiment: cyberazov[.]com.
The app actually didn’t DDoS anything, but was designed to map out and figure out who would want to use such an app to attack Russian websites, according to Huntely.
Google said the fake app wasn’t hosted on the Play Store, and that the number of installs “was miniscule.”
Details from Google’s Threat Analysis Group here.
Posted on July 20, 2022 at 10:32 AM •
Interesting paper by Lennart Maschmeyer: “The Subversive Trilemma: Why Cyber Operations Fall Short of Expectations“:
Abstract: Although cyber conflict has existed for thirty years, the strategic utility of cyber operations remains unclear. Many expect cyber operations to provide independent utility in both warfare and low-intensity competition. Underlying these expectations are broadly shared assumptions that information technology increases operational effectiveness. But a growing body of research shows how cyber operations tend to fall short of their promise. The reason for this shortfall is their subversive mechanism of action. In theory, subversion provides a way to exert influence at lower risks than force because it is secret and indirect, exploiting systems to use them against adversaries. The mismatch between promise and practice is the consequence of the subversive trilemma of cyber operations, whereby speed, intensity, and control are negatively correlated. These constraints pose a trilemma for actors because a gain in one variable tends to produce losses across the other two variables. A case study of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict provides empirical support for the argument. Qualitative analysis leverages original data from field interviews, leaked documents, forensic evidence, and local media. Findings show that the subversive trilemma limited the strategic utility of all five major disruptive cyber operations in this conflict.
Posted on May 31, 2022 at 6:06 AM •
Microsoft has a comprehensive report on the dozens of cyberattacks—and even more espionage operations—Russia has conducted against Ukraine as part of this war:
At least six Russian Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) actors and other unattributed threats, have conducted destructive attacks, espionage operations, or both, while Russian military forces attack the country by land, air, and sea. It is unclear whether computer network operators and physical forces are just independently pursuing a common set of priorities or actively coordinating. However, collectively, the cyber and kinetic actions work to disrupt or degrade Ukrainian government and military functions and undermine the public’s trust in those same institutions.
Threat groups with known or suspected ties to the GRU have continuously developed and used destructive wiper malware or similarly destructive tools on targeted Ukrainian networks at a pace of two to three incidents a week since the eve of invasion. From February 23 to April 8, we saw evidence of nearly 40 discrete destructive attacks that permanently destroyed files in hundreds of systems across dozens of organizations in Ukraine.
Posted on April 28, 2022 at 9:15 AM •
A Russian cyberweapon, similar to the one used in 2016, was detected and removed before it could be used.
- ESET researchers collaborated with CERT-UA to analyze the attack against the Ukrainian energy company
- The destructive actions were scheduled for 2022-04-08 but artifacts suggest that the attack had been planned for at least two weeks
- The attack used ICS-capable malware and regular disk wipers for Windows, Linux and Solaris operating systems
- We assess with high confidence that the attackers used a new version of the Industroyer malware, which was used in 2016 to cut power in Ukraine
- We assess with high confidence that the APT group Sandworm is responsible for this new attack
EDITED TO ADD: Better news coverage from Wired.
Posted on April 13, 2022 at 6:32 AM •
Based on two years of leaked messages, 60,000 in all:
The Conti ransomware gang runs like any number of businesses around the world. It has multiple departments, from HR and administrators to coders and researchers. It has policies on how its hackers should process their code, and shares best practices to keep the group’s members hidden from law enforcement.
Posted on March 29, 2022 at 6:02 AM •
It has been interesting to notice how unimportant and ineffective cyber operations have been in the Russia-Ukraine war. Russia launched a wiper against Ukraine at the beginning, but it was found and neutered. Near as I can tell, the only thing that worked was the disabling of regional KA-SAT SATCOM terminals.
It’s probably too early to reach any conclusions, but people are starting to write about this, with varying theories.
I want to write about this, too, but I’m waiting for things to progress more.
EDITED TO ADD (3/12): Two additional takes.
EDITED TO ADD (3/22): Thomas Rid comments
Posted on March 10, 2022 at 6:06 AM •
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.