5 Mar 2014

Ukraine suspects Russia as source of cyber attack on MPs

A cyber attack on Ukraine from inside the Russian-controlled Crimea region has hit the mobile phones of its members of parliament, the head of the country’s security service says.

Both Russia and Ukraine are home to talented computer engineers (Reuters)

Some internet and telephone services were severed after Russian forces seized control of airfields and key installations in Ukraine’s Crimea region on Friday, but now politicians were being targeted, the SBU’s Valentyn Nalivaichenko revealed.

“I confirm that an…attack is under way on mobile phones of members of Ukrainian parliament for the second day in row,” the security chief told a news briefing.

Mr Nalivaichenko said the source of the attack was the Ukrtelecom base in Crimea. He blamed illegally installed equipment that was blocking his phone as well as those of other deputies.

Ukrtelecom has already said armed men raided its facilities in Crimea on Friday and tampered with fibre optic cables, causing outages of local telephone and internet systems on the continent.

The Ukrainian security chief did not say whether the new issues were linked to the earlier raid or a separate tampering incident.

Russia’s domestic intelligence service, the FSB, declined to comment when asked if Moscow was behind the communications disruptions in Ukraine.

Website offline

The main Ukrainian government website, www.kmu.gov.ua, was offline for about 72 hours after Russian forces seized control of the peninsula, but went back up early on Monday.

John Bumgarner, chief technology officer for the US Cyber Consequences Unit, which advises companies and government agencies on how to fend off cyber attacks, said he believes Moscow has the ability to cause major disruptions using cyber operations, adding that it has done so in the past.

“I know they have the ability to do at least as much damage as they did in Estonia and Georgia,” he said.

Estonia suffered a 10-day attack on its internet services in 2007, which caused major disruptions to its financial system, during a spat with Moscow over a Soviet-era war memorial.

Georgia was hit by mass cyber attacks during a brief 2008 war with Russia over its pro-Moscow South Ossetia region.

Patriotic hackers

Russian authorities denied direct involvement in both attacks, saying they had no influence over the actions of self-styled patriotic hackers.

Much of Ukraine’s telecommunications infrastructure was built when it was part of the Soviet Union, along with what is now the Russian Federation, and is particularly vulnerable to penetration by Moscow.

Jim Lewis, a former US foreign service officer and now senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said: “They are right next door and most traffic has to go through Russia. That they haven’t done more probably reflects their confidence that they’re going to come out ahead and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”

John Bassett, former head of the London and Washington stations of GCHQ, said that it appeared that the Russians were acting with more discretion and targeting than previously.

“This wouldn’t expose any great depth of their technological capability and they would be keeping the harder stuff back,” said Bassett, who is now associate at Oxford University’s Cyber Security Centre.

Others have suggested that this restraint might also be linked to Moscow’s wariness of encouraging retaliation from pro-Ukrainian hackers.

Ukraine is also known to be a home to talented computer engineers and over the weekend, someone sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause managed to hack the website of the Russian government’s English-language news organ, Russia Today.