The latest exposures of Russian cyberattacks prove that the west – finally – is watching
Even the smartest operatives leave clues, and the movements of Russia’s agents can now be tracked in ways that were impossible even a few years ago
Has the west finally realised that it has been losing its undeclared cyberwar with Russia?
It seems so, and about time. The announcement by the US Department of Justice that seven suspected Russian spies have been charged over a hacking conspiracy is an important moment.
As department officials have said, they worked closely with Canadian, British, Dutch and Swiss agencies to identify those responsible. The World Anti-Doping Agency, among others, is said to have been attacked. Even in a cyberworld, the FBI can find you, name you and pursue you.
The extent of the activities of Russia’s military intelligence unit, the GRU, is by its nature unknown. However, there seems little reason to doubt the latest British claims that the GRU is behind at least four high-profile cyberattacks. The British National Cyber Security Centre says targets included firms in Russia and Ukraine; the US Democratic Party; and a small TV network in the UK. Most grievously, Dutch security services say they expelled four Russians over a cyberattack plot targeting the global chemical weapons watchdog.
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They have recovered a car used by Russian spies with an apparently vast haul of intelligence inside, simply left behind by the Russian agents before they had the chance to destroy the evidence, including a taxi receipt for the trip form GRU HQ to Moscow airport. The GRU spies’ expenses claim will have to be processed without all the usual paperwork.
What seems to be happening is that, at long last, western governments have started to take seriously the damage that cyberwarfare can inflict on their own citizens, and decided to do something about it. As we saw with the 2017 “WannaCry” cyberattack on the NHS, most likely originating in North Korea, disrupting vital healthcare can be a lethal risk to innocent people.
Cyberwarfare, then, can be as much a threat to life and limb as any bomb or bullet. And yet the west has for far too long seemed to treat these activities as little more than Russian pranks, low-level aggression not deemed serious enough to warrant retaliation. The Kremlin too seems to have allowed its intelligence agencies and semi-freelance groups such as Fancy Bear licence to violate other nation’s laws and international norms.
This seems to have three aims in mind. First, the attacks are a show of digital strength and expertise by the Russians, the virtual equivalent of an old-style Mayday parade in Red Square.
Second, there are plainly specific missions designed to support wider Russian defence and political interests. Thus the spies will have wanted to target the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to see how far Russia’s connections with chemical warfare have been discovered – including the attack on the Skripals in Salisbury. The have hacked and otherwise infiltrated both main parties in the 2016 US presidential election.
All the time the Russians are honing their techniques, learning their cybercraft and trying to gain a competitive edge over the west, conscious that in technology and reliability, their conventional and nuclear defence systems lag those possessed by Nato (though the gap is narrowing as President Putin boosts defence spending).
Third, the Russians are, as ever, probing western defences and testing western resolve and unity, constantly pushing at the boundaries until they find some level of resistance. Just as they did when they invaded Crimea and occupied eastern Ukraine, and in the support for the Assad government in Syria, they like to know much they can get away with. So far, it has been too much.
And yet the Russians are no longer having things their own way. Even the smartest operatives leave clues, and not all of Russia’s intelligence officers are careful. There are digital trails and, with CCTV and digital surveillance, the movements of their agents across the globe can be tracked in a way that would have been impossible even a few years ago.
In the case of the GRU officers who took on the attempted assassination of the Skripals, virtually their every move around the south of England was followed, their images taken form their passports and their real names soon revealed. The evidence gathered gave their lie to some of the more comical aspects of their alibi that they were random tourists.
If nothing else, then, these latest exposures of Russian activity prove that the west is watching, and now willing to act. Of course, Vladimir Putin and his allies will snort at the very notion that the FBI could issue a warrant for the arrest of Russian citizens on Russian soil and be able to enforce it. Yet the signal, uncoded, is that games are over for Fancy Bear and the rest and, if needs be, the spies themselves can be spied upon, and dealt with via cyberaction.
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