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Cyber saber-rattling is cranking up the threat of digital conflict

Authoritarian Tech is a weekly newsletter tracking how people in power are abusing technology and what it means for the rest of us. Also in this edition: Big Tech at ground zero of the information war; and crypto crowdfunding for Ukraine’s military

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​​Last week, in the early stages of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an ominous headline made the rounds on social media: President Joe Biden was briefed on cyber attack options against Russia, NBC reported, including shutting off power and cutting off access to the internet.

The White House shot down the claim, but the report left many cybersecurity experts rattled. After all, it is not unlikely that cyber escalations from the U.S. or NATO countries could cause Russia to respond with its own suite of cyber attacks on everything from hospitals to elementary schools, local governments, and critical infrastructure like pipelines or the electric grid. It’s a precarious situation, and government officials in America and beyond are bracing for the possibility of mass digital disruptions.

In the U.S., federal agencies have been warned to prepare for possible cyber attacks, with officials even reportedly suggesting employees stock up on food, gas, and supplies. In the U.K., companies have been briefed on the digital threat, and Australia has similarly sounded the alarm on the potential for retaliatory cyber aggression. Ukrainian government websites and banks have already been hit, and an intensification of digital attacks that cut people off from internet access or power as the invasion escalates could be devastating.

Already, several players are wading into the fraught waters of potential digital conflict. Ukraine has launched an “IT army” to fight Russia’s electronic threats. Belarusian “cyber partisans” have allegedly hacked into the country’s rail network to slow down the movement of Russian troops. Then there are the digital kidnappers. A notorious ransomware gang on Friday warned ominously that it was “officially announcing a full support of Russian government” and would “strike back” in the event of a cyber attack against Russia. Many experts believe the latest round of crippling sanctions imposed on Russia by Western nations could cause an uptick in ransomware attacks as a means to generate revenue. Russia is widely known to be a hotbed of ransomware activity: nearly 75% of the income made from ransomware attacks in 2021 were found to go to Russian-linked hackers. What all this means for readers who aren’t in Europe is that the war could still come to you. 

It’s worth thinking about what all this cyber saber-rattling means for the U.S., a country with notoriously weak defenses to cyber attacks — “so poor,” as John Arquilla, distinguished professor emeritus at the United States Naval Postgraduate School, put it. “We have great offensive capabilities in the U.S. but terrible defenses.” Arquilla is a cyber security expert who has spent decades researching and thinking about cyber conflict. In fact, he invented the term “cyber war” decades ago, and he recently published the book Bitskrieg: The New Challenge of Cyberwarfare, about how new technologies are shaping conflict. I asked Arquilla what he made of the reports that the U.S. may be weighing cyber attacks against Russia — and how that kind of escalation could ricochet back to Americans.

“I’m very concerned about all the loose talk about, ‘well, we can use cyber because that’s not like sending a bomber in or a commando team,’” he told me. “Well, it actually is. Whether you’re using bombs and bullets or bits and bytes, if the result is the disruption of an enemy system, then you have joined the war.”

What could that look like? Think back to last May, when a hack on the Colonial Pipeline in the U.S. unleashed pandemonium at gas stations across the southeast of the country. “We are not talking about mass destruction but rather mass disruption,” Arquilla explained. Attacks on infrastructure, local governments, hospitals, and schools can wreak havoc on peoples’ everyday lives as well as their confidence in systems. These disruptions have consequences that are both psychological and pragmatic. And, it’s worth noting that an attack in cyberspace might not remain in the digital realm. Retaliation to cyber attacks could turn back to the physical world.

“We have to view any kind of American or NATO cyber attacks on Russia as true acts of war,” Arquilla said. And that’s a dangerous place to be. As Arquilla pointed out, “the U.S. and its NATO allies are far more vulnerable to cyber attack than Russia is.”

IN OTHER GLOBAL NEWS: 

For more on the global cyberwar threat, don’t miss our Q&A from last week with a cybersecurity expert about the risk of ransomware attacks, and our Big Idea about how these digital kidnappings could overtake disinformation as the go-to method for sowing chaos and eroding faith in governments and institutions. Also: Rest of World takes a deeper look at Russia’s years-long cyber campaign against Ukraine.

Silicon Valley is caught in the crosshairs of the war in Ukraine. Long gone are the starry-eyed days of techno-utopianism. Now, pressure is mounting on tech giants to crack down on Russian disinformation and propaganda, as major platforms find themselves at ground zero of the information war. Last week, U.S. Senator Mark Warner sent letters to Alphabet, Meta, Reddit, Telegram, TikTok, and Twitter, urging the companies to take action against Russian propaganda. Warner blasted YouTube in particular for allowing Russian state media to profit by running ads on their channels. As calls for Silicon Valley to reign in Russia grow louder, some changes are afoot. Twitter said it will label content from Russian state media outlets; Facebook announced it is blocking access to Russian state media in the EU after a request from the bloc to do so; and Google, YouTube, and Facebook claimed they are blocking Russian state media from running ads. Could this usher in a new era for Big Tech? Or will it be back to business as usual once global attention moves to something else?

WHAT WE ARE READING

  • Crowdfunding campaigns seeking to finance Ukraine’s fight against Russia are popping up all over the internet. One foundation raised an eye-popping $4 million in cryptocurrencies as of last week. But beware: The space is rife with scammers looking to make a buck.
  • And finally, for something not Ukraine-related: I recommend TIME’s deep dive into the grueling working conditions for African content moderators at Sama, an outsourcing company that works with Facebook. According to the investigation, some workers make as little as $1.50 an hour. Others have had to resign after diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression. “The revelations raise serious questions about whether Facebook — which periodically sends its own employees to Nairobi to monitor Sama’s operations — is exploiting the very people upon whom it is depending to ensure its platform is safe,” TIME’s Billy Perrigo writes. 

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