Weaponized cybercrime: What organizations can learn from the conflict in Ukraine

Weaponized cybercrime: What organizations can learn from the conflict in Ukraine

Authored By Sergey Shykevich, Threat Intelligence Group Manager at Check Point Software

Russia launched a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine with attacks on land, sea, air.  What has been less visible but nonetheless a critical element of the conflict is the battle being waged in cyberspace. 

Just like the military conflict with its wider consequences in terms of disruption to trade and the tragedy of the refugee crisis, the war in cyberspace has an impact beyond the borders of Ukraine and Russia.

While no one can predict how long this war will last, we can say for certain that the cyber aspects of the conflict in Ukraine will continue to resonate long after the guns have been silenced, as highlighted in Check Point’s Mid-Year Security Report 2022.

So, what does the conflict teach us about cyberwarfare and how can organizations prepare themselves for this new world order?

A new era of cyberwarfare

One thing we can take away from what’s happening in Ukraine is that cyberwarfare has become an established component of global conflict both in the propaganda battle as well as in the actual conduct of military operations.  From Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks and website defacements to destructive critical infrastructure attacks, activity on both sides has escalated dramatically since the initial invasion in February.

Just three days into the conflict in late February, Check Point Research (CPR) noted a 196% increase in cyberattacks on Ukraine’s government and military sector. And these attacks have shown no signs of slowing down in the months since. New figures from CPR reports that between February and August of this year, cyberattacks on Ukraine’s government and military sector more than doubled, increasing by a staggering 112%, while Russia’s same sector decreased by 8%. 

While Russia has not completely disconnected from the internet as per previous reports, government and military networks and websites have implemented different measures to limit access to their resources from outside of Russia, which make the execution of some of the attacks more difficult. Indeed, Ukraine has been under constant attack - throughout the conflict, corporate networks have experienced over 1,500 cyberattacks a week on average. This is 25% higher than before the conflict, versus 1,434 weekly cyberattacks on Russia corporate networks.

Russian operations, in particular, have focused on a campaign of disruption and destruction, with government and state-sponsored APT groups conducting sophisticated operations that have ranged from critical infrastructure attacks to espionage missions. For the first time, we've also seen coordination between cyberattacks and kinetic military assaults. One notable example took place on March 1st when a Russian missile assault on Kyiv’s TV tower coincided with a simultaneous cyberattack designed to knock out the city’s broadcasting capabilities.

CPR also reported that the most attacked industry In Russia during the conflict was the finance sector, with an average of more than 2600 attacks per organization every week, an increase of 24% compared to before the conflict. The second most attacked industry during the conflict was Communications, with an average of 1928 weekly attacks per organization (8% decrease).

This could possibly be due to a heavier focus on the finance industry having greater activity, due to global sanctions implemented on Russia from government and business organizations outside of Russia.

Disrupting this sector will also severely disturb the day-to-day normal activities of its citizens, similar to attacks on the Communications sector, where the majority of services provided online such as calls or internet services would push normal activities into disarray.

CPR also reported that the most attacked industry during the conflict in Ukraine was the finance sector, with an average of 1,841 cyberattacks per organization every week, a decrease of 29% compared to the period before the conflict, followed by the government and military sector, with an average of 1,406 weekly attacks per organization, which also saw the highest increase in weekly cyberattacks with a 112% increase compared to before the conflict, which could be due to increased attacks inflicted on them by factions siding with Russia. Manufacturing was the third heavily attacked sector, with over 400 attacks per organization every week (64% decrease).

Like Russia, the finance sector also saw major attacks, probably as an outcome of the various government and individual financial aid received, as well as cybercriminals who were looking to cash in on known donations being sent to Ukraine for the war and refugee efforts.

 It was not surprising to see the manufacturing sector also being heavily attacked as this is one of their key critical industries for any country to be sustained, with its global wheat exports contributing heavily to Ukraine’s economy. Such disruptions would now not only impact inflows of funds into Ukraine, but negatively impact their exports.

Perhaps the defining aspect of these attacks, however, has been the strength and relative successes of Ukraine's cybern defenses, something that highlights the importance of ongoing operational security

But continued vigilance is just one of the factors at play here. The other notable impact has come from the army of volunteers who have flocked to support Ukraine, and whose involvement might change the face of cybersecurity as we know it.

 A battleground without borders

The cyber battle that’s raged in Ukraine has silently swept up thousands of “volunteer troops” ranging from hacktivists to cybercriminals via technology companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The digital front has also attracted the attention of high-profile collectives with the powerful Conti ransomware group publicly vowing to protect the Kremlin’s interests while Anonymous declared war on Russia itself.

One of the most interesting aspects of the cyber warfare that has raged in Eastern Europe has been Ukraine’s willingness to recruit keyboard warriors from both sides of the law to join its ranks. During the first few days of the war the Ukrainian Minister of Digital Transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov, posted on Twitter a call for “digital talents” to join the country’s newly created IT army, with operational tasks being allocated to them via a designated Telegram channel that attracted hundreds of thousands of members.

The formation of a state-affiliated cyber force is unprecedented and, while the birth of Ukraine’s IT army is an extraordinary achievement, looking forward it could prove to be problematic. Recruiting and engaging members via Telegram is far from secure. How do you vet the people that are coming forward and stop other parties from infiltrating them or using them for their own recruitment? The fact that just about anybody could be serving within Ukraine’s cyber army is a major concern. There are equal concerns on the Russian side where state-backing has given cybercriminal groups both the means and opportunities to step up their activity.

Opening the floodgates for future cyberattacks

When the Russia-Ukraine war does come to an end, it is likely that the cybersecurity space will find itself in a far worse situation than it is today. Whether it’s through the anonymous recruitment of Ukraine’s IT army or the cybercriminals in Russia to whom this conflict has given an opportunity to hone their craft.

After the conflict, whatever the outcome, these APT groups, hacktivists and individuals are not just going to disappear. Instead, they will turn their newfound expertise and tooling toward fresh targets unleashing a tsunami of cyberattacks across the globe. We have already started to see early warning signs of this with attacks on NATO partners, as well as on those countries who have come to Ukraine’s aid, increasing in both frequency and intensity.

But it’s not just government departments in those countries that should be concerned, businesses must also prepare themselves for what will follow in the wake of this war. Cybercriminals need a steady income stream in order to recruit new members and invest in technology, and they will turn their attention towards enterprises to boost their coffers when state support has run dry.

This conflict has seen cyber activity change the face of warfare forever. But it has also had the ‘collateral damage’ effect of raising the threat level for cyber-attacks on government and commercial organizations globally.

While we were already in an era of sophisticated fifth-generation cyberattacks, threat actors have raised their game during the war and we know that even more integrated and sophisticated cyberattacks are coming down the line. Organizations need to ready themselves now. Mitigating attacks won't be enough, companies must adopt a prevent-first cybersecurity strategy.

And prevention is at the heart of Check Point’s Infinity platform, the first modern, consolidated security platform specifically designed to guard against zero-day vulnerabilities and sophisticated fifth-generation attacks across all networks, cloud deployments and endpoints. Part of Infinity’s success is its ability to leverage Check Point’s ThreatCloud, a real-time global threat intelligence platform that monitors networks around the world for emerging threats and vulnerabilities.

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