“Critical Infrastructure” is one of the most sensitive elements of any country’s economy. Recent attacks against Ukraine’s infrastructure have many other countries taking note and have encouraged NATO to pitch in and help bolster Ukrainian cyber defenses.
In December 2015, Ukrainian power grid operators watched helplessly as hackers remotely logged into three power distribution centers and turned off power to over 230,000 residents. The hackers had started their plans many months earlier by sending carefully crafted phishing emails to key IT staff working for the target companies. The malicious attachments to these emails allowed the bad guys to gain a foothold in the networks and over the subsequent months they carefully gathered information and improved their remote capabilities until it was time to strike. Attribution is difficult, but given the patience and approaches demonstrated by the bad guys it is obvious that they are sophisticated and many people are pointing their finger at Russian-linked hacking groups.
More recently, in June 2017, a ransomware attack was launched in Ukraine impacting transportation, banking and power infrastructure. Believed to be the Petya ransomware variant, the attack spread beyond the original targets and became a worldwide problem that has directly cost millions of dollars in lost production for many companies as well as untold costs in remediation and recovery efforts. As investigators began to dig deeper into the Petya attack it appears that it was only masquerading as ransomware. The primary function of ransomware is to generate revenue for the bad guys. However, this attack had a clunky mechanism for gathering the ransom so it appears its primary function was something else. Most experts now agree that this was another attack intended to disrupt Ukrainian infrastructure and have dubbed it the NotPetya attack. Again attribution is uncertain, but Russian-linked groups are suspected.
All other countries are keeping a close watch on these developments. It is reported that critical infrastructure protections in Ukraine are better than many other countries’ so it is conceivable that these same attacks will eventually be turned against new targets. In a demonstration of solidarity — and likely a lot of self-interest — NATO has agreed to provide Ukraine with support and equipment to “help Ukraine investigate who is behind the different attacks,” according to NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg. In December 2014 NATO established the Cyber Defence Trust Fund with a mandate “to provide Ukraine with the necessary support to develop its strictly defensive, CSIRT-type technical capabilities, including laboratories to investigate cyber security incidents.” Since June 2016, €965,000 has been contributed by eight countries and while this helped to bolster Ukrainian cyber defenses, it is obvious that it isn’t enough.
Speaking on the topic of Ukraine formally joining the NATO union at a joint press conference with NATO on Monday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said,
Given the recent cyber attacks’ rumored source as Russian-linked hacking groups, the ongoing tensions between Russia and Ukraine as well Russia’s public stance against any NATO expansion this is unlikely to calm things down in the region. But with the sophistication of the cyber attacks and the apparent disregard for global impacts beyond Ukrainian borders, it is impractical for other countries to sit on the sidelines and let Ukraine attempt to protect themselves.
“NATO is learning a lot from Ukraine,” says Jens Stoltenberg.