Streetwise Professor

August 17, 2009

Hacked Off

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 9:54 pm

Russia “earned” five of the top world stories in the banner on today’s WSJ, and what a list it is.  The Arctic Sea fiasco.  The eleven-fatality accident at the  Sayano- Shushenskaya power plant.  A mass bombing in Ingushetia. And two stories relating to massive cybercrime.

The first involves the indictment of an American who was a participant in a plot to steal 130 million credit and debit cards.  With him were indicted, you guessed it, two Russians:

Subsequent investigations into breaches at Heartland and others led investigators back to Mr. Gonzalez. They found that he and his co-conspirators in Russia, which the indictment does not name, staged their crime on a network of computers spanning New Jersey, California, Illinois, Latvia, the Netherlands and Ukraine that would infiltrate the computer networks of the victim companies.

But to me this is the more interesting story:

Russian hackers hijacked American identities and U.S. software tools and used them in an attack on Georgian government Web sites during the war between Russia and Georgia last year, according to new research to be released Monday by a nonprofit U.S. group.

In addition to refashioning common  Microsoft Corp. software into a cyber-weapon, hackers collaborated on popular U.S.-based social-networking sites, including Twitter and Facebook Inc., to coordinate attacks on Georgian sites, the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit found. While the cyberattacks on Georgia were examined shortly after the events last year, these U.S. connections weren’t previously known.

The research shows how cyber-warfare has outpaced military and international agreements, which don’t take into account the possibility of American resources and civilian technology being turned into weapons.

And just what is the Russian government doing about such massive cybercrime?  Well, the author of this research suggests that they are cooperating with it, and arguably exploiting it:

The Georgian attacks, according to the group’s findings, were perpetrated by Russian criminal groups and had no clear link to the Russian government. However, the timing of the attacks, just hours after the Russian military incursion began, suggests the Russian government may have at least indirectly coordinated with the cyberattackers, Mr. Bumgarner’s report concluded.

Note that the targets for the attack had to have been previously identified, and their vulnerabilities detected.  This doesn’t happen in hours.  Moreover, these targets were not likely to have been the kind of lucrative ones that would attract the interest of cyberthugs (like the ones in the first article, who had a scheme called “Get Rich or Die Tryin’.”)  Indeed, the criminals compromised very valuable assets–a huge botnet network and new hacking strategies–so it was costly for them, rather than directly profitable.  And the attack was almost simultaneous with the more traditional armored assault through the Roki Tunnel.  Put it all together, and there is a strong circumstantial case that the criminals who executed the Georgia hack were acting at behest of the Russian government and military, and that the attack had been planned well in advance (which also speaks to the ultimate responsibility for the start of the war).  It is difficult to think of a credible alternative explanation.  A spontaneous burst of patriotism from hardened criminals executed in record time doesn’t pass the smell test.

Add to this the disinterest in, and at times active resistance to, international efforts to attack in a serious way Russian cybercrime, and a more disturbing possibility emerges.  Namely, that there is a coincidence of interests between the government and cybercriminals.  The government allows them to operate with near impunity, and obtains a valuable strategic asset in return.  Perhaps elements in the government get a piece of the action too.

This has gone way, way beyond the point where this can be treated as a mere criminal matter.  The scope of the crimes–such as tens of millions of stolen identities in the Gonzalez-Russian scam–is too large, and the national security implications too grave.  Instead, the administration should pressure Russia hard, extremely hard, and at the highest levels, to take serious action to attack this problem in a systematic way.  If the government does this, all for the good.  If it doesn’t–and I would place good odds on this possibility–we will know that it is at least an accessory to this massive criminality, and more likely a co-conspirator.

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  1. It is difficult to think of a credible alternative explanation. A spontaneous burst of patriotism from hardened criminals executed in record time doesn’t pass the smell test.

    1. Probably wrong

    2. I don’t find the association with state and criminals to be particularly surprising. Many criminals are actually surprisingly patriotic and maintain a symbiotic relationship with the state, a good example would be the yakuza. They helped lay the background for Japanese occupation of China in the 1930s.

    3. Why not pressure China, whose activities in industrial espionage (judging by the headlines) are far more extensive than Russia’s? And how exactly should we pressure Russia, and why would they care?

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — August 17, 2009 @ 10:27 pm

  2. I’m sure the FSB flipped through their rolodex of criminal freelancers that can be contracted out for jobs where they want to conceal their fingerprints.

    Russia is one big criminal enterprise.

    Comment by penny — August 18, 2009 @ 2:20 pm

  3. S.O. give us a break, why not pressure North Korea as well for God’s sake! SWP’s focus is Russia among other economic topics so inserting China at every opportunity serves as a lame distraction.

    Comment by penny — August 18, 2009 @ 8:50 pm

  4. Not really, because a) Russia doesn’t exist in a vacuum and b) Chinese cyber-espionage is far more threatening to immediate US national interests.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — August 19, 2009 @ 1:22 am

  5. This:
    “which also speaks to the ultimate responsibility for the start of the war”

    is contradicted by:

    “However, the timing of the attacks, just hours after the Russian military incursion began…”

    Being prepared for hostilities initiated by a lunatic bombardment of a city and peacekeeping soldiers by massed multiple rocket launchers and cannon artillery =/= initiating those hostilities.

    Comment by rkka — August 19, 2009 @ 4:19 am

  6. Yes, and that’s even discounting the fact that all the initial attacks followed the pattern I hyperlinked to in the first post here – lots of ordinary citizens coordinating their efforts. Nothing surprising about that. The big botnets were only brought into play a few days into the war, AFAIK.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — August 19, 2009 @ 12:51 pm

  7. Well, well, look at this in the NYT’s, a hint at what Russia’s alleged pirated ship was carrying:

    The official version of events was questioned by Yulia Latynina, a leading Russian opposition journalist and commentator.

    “The Arctic Sea was carrying something, not timber and not from Finland, that necessitated some major work on the ship,” she wrote in the Moscow Times newspaper on Wednesday.

    During two weeks of repair works in the Russian port of Kaliningrad just before the voyage, the ship’s bulkhead was dismantled so something very large could be loaded, she wrote.

    “To put it plainly: The Arctic Sea was carrying some sort of anti-aircraft or nuclear contraption intended for a nice, peaceful country like Syria, and they were caught with it,” she said.

    Russia, arms merchant to the most unsavory thugs on the planet. And, they wonder why the west increasingly views them as a rogue nation.

    Russia can’t wither away fast enough.

    Comment by penny — August 19, 2009 @ 7:30 pm

  8. Bad news for you Penny! With immigration, Russia nearly got back to zero population growth in 2008. For 2009, births are up, and deaths are down.

    On the other hand, the Western clients the Baltic States and Ukraine have about the highest population decline rates in the world.

    Just some facts I thought you’d enjoy!

    Comment by rkka — August 20, 2009 @ 7:04 pm

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