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With Hackers Not Exactly Scarce in Russia and Ukraine, Battle Moves Online

Anonymous May Be Targeting Russian Websites

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Anti-government protesters rest following clashes in Kiev in February
Anti-government protesters rest following clashes in Kiev in February Credit: Vincent Mundy/Bloomberg

Cyberspace is fast becoming a battlefield for Ukrainian and Russian partisans even as ground troops from the two countries continue their military standoff.

Hackers have launched attacks on the websites of state agencies and publications on both sides. A Russian government watchdog has ordered a shutdown of the social-network pages of Ukrainian nationalist groups. And a Ukrainian phone company said its network in parts of the Crimean peninsula was damaged as unidentified men took over communication centers.

While there has been a cyber component in many recent armed conflicts, it's likely to be particularly intense in Ukraine because of the level of programming skills in both countries. Absent a crisis, Ukrainian and Russian Web wizards often deploy their skills against companies and consumers, aiming to profit from stolen bank data and corporate secrets.

The theft of 40 million credit card numbers from Target at the height of Christmas shopping season last year has been linked by security experts to a hacker based in the Ukrainian city of Odessa, and the U.S. Justice Department last July indicted Russians and Ukrainians in the theft of at least 160 million credit card numbers from several companies.

"We're going to see a very large cyber component to whatever happens" in Ukraine, said Rodney Joffe, senior vice president at Neustar, a technology research firm near Washington, D.C. "The damage can be quite debilitating."

Russia Today, an English-language website backed by the government of President Vladimir Putin, said hackers on March 2 added the word "Nazi" to headlines. The sites of Russian newspaper Vedomosti, news agency RIA Novosti, and several TV and radio stations have been hit with attacks meant to block readers, though none have been pushed offline, according to Group-IB, a Russian online security company.

Preview of conflicts to come
U.S. intelligence analysts are closely watching the roles hackers are playing in the Ukraine conflict for clues to how Russia and others might employ cyber capabilities in future conflicts, said two U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence issues. The officials said cyberspace is quickly rivaling traditional battlefields as a place where wars may be won or lost.

"There has definitely been an increase in malicious activity," said Ilya Sachkov, Group-IB's chief executive officer. "But the difference isn't as intense as, for example, what we saw during the most recent elections for Moscow mayor or the Russian parliament."

In Ukraine, newswires Unian and Gordon said they had been attacked by hackers, the latter asserting that the culprits were Russian. And a group claiming to be affiliated with Anonymous, a loose collection of internet activists, posted a video on sharing site Vimeo that said it was targeting Russian websites due to the conflict in Ukraine.

Russia's foreign ministry declined to immediately comment on preparations for cyber warfare. The defense ministry didn't return phone calls. Ukraine's computer security agency said it had registered attacks on websites and phone networks in the country. The security police didn't answer repeated phone calls.

Hacked phones again
Russian state television channels yesterday reported a leaked phone call between EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton and Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, who recently returned from Ukraine. In the hacked call, according to the reports, Mr. Paet said that snipers who killed protesters in Kiev had been working for the opposition, not now-deposed President Viktor Yanukovych. The Estonian Foreign Ministry said the call was authentic, but said Paet hadn't blamed the opposition for the shootings.

And on Feb. 23, state-funded Voice of Russia published e-mails alleged to have been written by Vitali Klitschko, a pro-Western candidate for the Ukrainian presidency. The documents leaked by a hacker group calling itself Anonymous Ukraine included one in which Mr. Klitschko thanked an adviser to Lithuania's president for funding the Ukrainian protests.

"The fact that this was published in the Russian media hints that the hackers may be linked to Russia," said Andrei Soldatov, who runs a Russian computer security website called Agentura.ru.

The key to winning the cyber conflict largely depends on whether the political leaders on each side can rally the hackers to their cause, said Sean Sullivan, an adviser at F-Secure Oyj, a tech consultant in Helsinki.

"There's quite a lot of cyber crime coming out of that region, so there are a lot of guys who know how to get around legitimate blockades," Mr. Sullivan said. "There's going to be a lot of cat and mouse, for sure."

~ Bloomberg News ~

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