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The role cyberattacks and information campaigns have played in the war in Ukraine

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The warnings came even before Russia invaded Ukraine - warnings that a cyberwar could be imminent. While we have not seen many of the open, obvious displays of digital destruction that some were expecting, like the power going out, cyberattacks and information campaigns have been a key part of the war on both sides. NPR's cybersecurity correspondent Jenna McLaughlin joins us now to unpack it all. Hi, Jenna.

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So, you know, we've heard so much about cyber in the lead-up to this war, but it never really came, right? Why is that?

MCLAUGHLIN: Sure. So all of my friends have been asking me exactly that - where is the cyber war we were promised? You know, will this latest comment from President Biden, for example, be Putin's excuse to shut down the energy grid? You know, it's hard to say exactly why that hasn't happened. There's a lot of theories about Russia wanting to keep the internet up for themselves, for example, operations we don't know about yet, plus the reality that bombs, rather than cyberattacks, are an easier way, in a lot of cases, to destroy critical infrastructure.

CHANG: True.

MCLAUGHLIN: But all along, cyberattacks have been a useful tool for helping with broader strategies. It's really been a thorn in Ukraine's side.

CHANG: Oh, really? How so? Say more about that.

MCLAUGHLIN: Sure. So, look, I mean, the biggest attack was maybe the most subtle, and it's still being investigated, and that was on European satellites at the beginning of the invasion. That prevented the Ukrainian military from communicating in some cases. Those hackers are actually still targeting the satellites, and it's been really challenging to resume service in Ukraine, though it appears there hasn't been permanent damage. It's hard to attribute an attack like that this early, but Western intelligence agencies are pointing to Russia as the culprit. Beyond that, we've also seen a massive amount of denial-of-service attacks, tampering with Ukrainian media sites, wiper malware destroying some computers in Ukrainian government agencies and companies. Just this week, we saw an attack on a Ukrainian internet provider that Ukrainian officials were investigating, and that's just what the Russians are doing.

CHANG: Right. Well, what about on the Ukrainian side? What kind of cyber war efforts do we see there?

MCLAUGHLIN: It's really been fascinating. We've seen this mobilization of Ukrainians in all walks of life to volunteer for the war effort, and that includes in cyber and information space. There's a volunteer IT Army of hackers who are working with the Ministry of Digital Transformation. There's a collective of artists and translators and others fighting the information war against Russia with memes. Plus, hacktivists have come to Ukraine's side. A collective of hackers under the banner of Anonymous, a group that's been around for decades, have claimed to breach a large number of prominent Russian agencies, but it'll probably take researchers years to verify and go through all that information.

CHANG: Huh, interesting. Well, you know, we have also been hearing that Russia might launch a cyberattack against the U.S. What does that possibility look like right now?

MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah. So over recent weeks, the White House, the FBI, DHS's cyber agency, CISA, have been increasing their alarm about a possible Russian cyberattack against U.S. businesses, and that would be a - sort of a retaliatory blow for U.S. support to Ukraine in the war. They haven't gone into too much detail, but they are saying that they're seeing bad actors scanning the internet for vulnerable networks. They're essentially seeking out potential targets who haven't patched known vulnerabilities that they could use as a foothold to get inside, particularly in the energy sector. So this kind of activity happens all the time, but an increase in targeted activity toward one sector could suggest a possible attack. During a hearing yesterday, the assistant director of the FBI's Cyber Division, Brian Vorndran, said that it's impossible to predict if Russia will launch this kind of attack or use cyber to win the war, but he called Russia a formidable foe in cyberspace.

CHANG: That was NPR's cybersecurity correspondent Jenna McLaughlin. Thank you, Jenna.

MCLAUGHLIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jenna McLaughlin
Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.