As tensions mount between Russia and the West over Ukraine, the threat of Russian cyberattacks against the United States increases. The Department of Homeland Security issued an intelligence bulletin on Jan. 23 warning that Russia has the capability to carry out a range of attacks, including disrupting critical infrastructure like power grids.
Cybersecurity experts are concerned that in the wake of recent cyberattacks by hackers affiliated with Russia, the Russian government has the capability to carry out disruptive and destructive attacks against targets in the United States. The SolarWinds attack, uncovered in December 2020, gave the perpetrators access to the computer systems of many U.S. government agencies and private businesses. The DHS and FBI accused Russian hackers in March 2018 of infiltrating U.S. energy and infrastructure networks.
Russian cyberattacks could include continued attempts to diminish Americans’ confidence in elections, undermine economic stability, damage the energy grid, and even disrupt healthcare systems.
While some components of these systems almost certainly remain vulnerable to Russian-aligned hackers, the Russian government is likely to think twice before unleashing highly disruptive attacks against the United States because the U.S. government could interpret such attacks, particularly those targeting critical infrastructure, as acts of war. The DHS bulletin stated that Russia has a high threshold for initiating disruptive attacks. As a researcher who studies cyberwarfare, I believe a more likely threat from Russian hackers is launching disinformation campaigns.
Americans can probably expect to see Russian-sponsored cyber activities working in tandem with propaganda campaigns. These activities are likely to be aimed at preventing a unified response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.
Russian military doctrine includes the well-evolved concept of information confrontation, which uses cyber means to create doubt about what is true. Russia’s information warfare strategy seeks to manipulate information and relationships.
The specific maneuvers aim to bolster narratives, people and groups that support Russian interests and undermine those that are counter to Russian interests. The maneuvers, which include dismissing and distorting information and undermining opinion leaders, are carried out in the press and on social media.
Russian intelligence operatives are skilled at using technology, including amplifying misinformation through fake accounts on popular social media platforms. In effect, Russia uses social and other online media like a military-grade fog machine that confuses the U.S. population and encourages mistrust in the strength and validity of the U.S. government.
If you are worried about the situation and wondering what you can do to defend against Russian cyberattacks, I recommend tuning out divisive rhetoric and cultivating common ground with Americans whom you might not agree with. Though there are many issues U.S. society is working through, Americans can still try to find some general agreement in the principles of the American experiment.
This article was excerpted from a story written by Justin Pelletier, professor of computing security at Rochester Institute of Technology. The original version was published by The Conversation, and can be read in full here.