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Nature of cyber war evolving in real time, says Microsoft president

The past three months have seen the rapid evolution of the very nature warfare to incorporate cyber attacks, Microsoft’s Brad Smith tells the audience at its Envision conference in London

Just as World War I saw the emergence of air forces as a battlefield tool, Russia’s war on Ukraine is demonstrating in real time how quickly warfare evolves to incorporate new technologies, with cyber warfare becoming an established tool and security experts becoming as critical as frontline troops, Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, has said.

In a lengthy speech delivered to the company’s Envision event in the UK, Smith said that while the newspapers will record the attack began in the early hours of 24 February 2022, in reality Russia had for some time been using cyber attacks against Ukraine – at first as psychological warfare, but latterly in a more destructive manner.

“The first shells in this battle were actually fired in cyber space. And we at Microsoft were the first to see them. The very first weapon to be fired…was fired at more than 300 targets across the Ukrainian government, at IT companies and banks and agricultural companies. It was fired simultaneously by the Russian military in a coordinated way,” said Smith.

“One of the lessons here is a bit like the lesson that was learned when combat moved from the sea to the air, distances shrank and speeds accelerated. But the case today is that weapons can go halfway around the world at the speed of light, far faster than any hypersonic weapon that any military is seeking to develop. So it’s created a new front line.”

Smith said that much like one would now expect to see amphibious warfare that incorporates ground-, sea- and air-based forces, now these conventional attacks are being combined with cyber attacks.

“We’re seeing in real time, the evolution of this hybrid war. We’ve seen it now on repeated occasions…we’ve seen waves of destructive attacks against hundreds of different targets,” said Smith

“And what we’ve seen as time has gone on is how events get connected. For example, we saw how within a matter of days, the Russians would go from taking down a network in a nuclear power plant to attacking that nuclear power plant. We would see how they would go from trying to disrupt the network for a city around an airport to then trying to attack and take possession of the airport.

“We’ve seen that time shrink and expand the times down to minutes and hours at times just within a day or two. This is a new form of amphibious warfare in cyber space.”

Hiding in the cloud

Smith also reflected on how Microsoft has been working behind the scenes to assist Ukraine’s government, and many other private sector organisations, to protect themselves by moving their operations and data into the cloud at breakneck speed.

“One week before that war began in February of this year, the Ukrainian government was running entirely on-premise in server rooms and government buildings. The government realised that that was a very dangerous place to place its digital infrastructure,” said Smith.

“We recognised that we needed in this case, not just to move their data and their infrastructure to the cloud, but to move it to the cloud outside Ukraine, and that’s one of the most interesting lessons of this aspect of the work; the best way to protect a country in a time of war is to ensure its continuity by dispersing its digital assets. In the Baltics and other countries today, governments are recognising that you are most safe when people don’t know where your data is,” he said.

He also spoke of some of the other ways in which Microsoft is bringing its enormous operational capabilities to bear in support of Ukraine, including reaching out to and working with IT security leaders in Ukraine, blocking access to sources of Russian disinformation and helping push back against the Kremlin’s lies. It is also using artificial intelligence to identify civilian targets being destroyed by Russian attacks, and providing technology gratis to bodies such as the UN and the International Criminal Court, that will eventually hold Russia accountable for its actions.

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