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Ukraine and Russia locked in a cyber stand-off

Warwick Ashford

Security experts have warned that Ukraine and neighbouring Russia are locked in a cyber stand-off amid diplomatic efforts to reduce political tensions between the two countries.

Ukraine has accused Russia of disrupting mobile communications in the wake of smaller-scale attacks in which Ukraine websites have been defaced with propaganda messages, reports the BBC.

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In response, Ukrainian hacktivist group Cyber-Berkut claims to have vandalised 40 Russian websites since the dispute began, prompting speculation about an escalation of cyber conflict.

Russia is suspected of conducting distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on neighbouring Georgia in the run up to conventional military conflict in 2008.

Russia denied being behind the DDoS attacks on Georgia and has not commented on accusations that it is disrupting mobile communications in Ukraine and tampered with fibre-optic networks.

However, experts say it is unlikely that Ukraine will experience cyber attacks on the same scale as Estonia in 2007, when the country was hit by 10 days of attacks on its internet services.

The attacks coincided with a disagreement between Estonia and Russia over the relocation of a Soviet war memorial.

“It is pre-mature to talk of ‘cyber war’ or ‘cyber conflict’ in Ukraine,” said Jarno Limnell, director of cyber security, Stonesoft, a McAfee Group Company.

“Cyber is likely to be an element in any modern war, and while website defacements are ongoing, that is entirely different to ‘cyber war’,” he told Computer Weekly.

Limnell, a former advisor to the military and government in Finland, said any serious player in international politics has to possess strong cyber capabilities, both defensive and offensive.

But, he said cyber offensives are usually in the form of website defacements and propaganda ahead of any serious attacks on government services and critical national infrastructure.

Countries should think seriously before moving to serious attacks, said Limnell, because such attacks could scupper diplomatic effort to restore calm.

Serious cyber attacks can also have unpredictable and unintended side effects, and could boomerang on attackers, he warned.

Opponents to cyber weapons argue that once an attack has been unleashed, the weaponised malware can be analysed, repurposed and turned on attackers.

They have also raised concerns that, while there are established rules for conventional war, no such parameters have been established in the cyber world.


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