Spotlight Podcast: Is Russia rethinking its Cyber Offense?

If 2016 and 2017 saw aggressive efforts by the government of Russia to use hacking and online information operations to influence politics in the U.S. and Western Europe, 2018 may see the country reckoning with the aftermath of those campaigns. And that may result in a rethink of the utility of online information and hacking operations, says Flashpoint in its Business Risk Intelligence report. 

From the perspective of those of us in the U.S., Russia would seem to be on top of its offensive cyber game. After all, the government of Vladimir Putin scored a major coup in the 2016 US Presidential elections, where the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community as well as private sector firms is that Russian-backed hacking groups stole and then selectively released e-mail communications from the campaign of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, as well as other Democratic political organizations in order to undermine her candidacy.

on Condra, the director of Asia Pacific Research at Flashpoint.

Further information released by firms like Twitter and Facebook have illuminated how groups based in Russia used relatively modest advertising buys and a massive network of automated or shell social media accounts to stir up racial and political tensions in the U.S. in the months leading up to the November 2016 vote. The goal: to promote the candidacy of Republican candidate Donald Trump, who spoke admiringly of Mr. Putin and even called on Russia to release some of Mrs. Clinton’s stolen emails.

So it might come as a surprise to read the latest Business Risk Intelligence report from the firm Flashpoint, which suggests that Russia may be re-thinking its use of cyber offensive tools in 2018, as the full consequences of its foreign adventures in the last two years come home to roost.

Russian Soldiers
Faced with blowback from its cyber operations in the US and Western Europe, will Russia reconsider the utility of such tools? Flashpoint said that is one possible development to watch for in 2018. (Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense.)

In our January Spotlight Podcast, we sat down with Jon Condra, the director of Asia Pacific Research at Flashpoint. In our talk, Jon notes that Russia has not become more powerful as a result of its hacking operations in the U.S. and Western Europe, but more isolated.

“A lot of the narrative in the media right now is about how Russia manipulated the election and…helped get Donald Trump elected,” Condra said. But Condra notes that its not clear that the objective of Russia and its hackers was to get Trump elected or that the country expected the operations to be as successful as they were.  Regardless, the consequences for the country have been predictable: US policy towards Russia has hardened, not softened under the Trump administration, as more and more information about Russian meddling has become public.

“What Russia is now facing is increasing isolation in the international community, anger across Western Europe particularly in France as well as the U.S. The ongoing investigation in the U.S. is a problem for them,” Condra said. “There’s a consensus that Russia is not friendly towards Western democracies and that’s a problem for them going forward. I think its fair to say there’s some level of introspection going on in Russia.”

The implications are huge. Other nations are watching how the Russian “experiment” plays out. While espionage is nothing new – and Russia is the undisputed master of espionage and covert operations –the tactics used here were. “China, North Korea and Iran are watching this play out with intense interest,” Condra said.

The bigger risk, Condra warns, is how some of these tools and techniques might be used domestically to entrench already powerful and despotic governments.

“I’m worried that technology is enabling authoritarian tendencies worldwide…essentially building the tools for a George Orwell type scenario in countries that already have a strong political class that can already enforce these kinds of things and can roll out these programs and demand compliance.”

Check out our Spotlight podcast to hear the full discussion. It’s a fascinating conversation. Jon and I talk about the interplay between geopolitical tensions and cyber risks and cyber operations. Suffice it to say that the loop between happenings in the real world and operations in the online realm is becoming much shorter. We also delve into the state of hacktivism globally. Even as groups like Anonymous have taken a lower profile in the West, they’re on the rise in developing nations like Thailand and Brazil. “I think we’re starting to see the internationalization of the Anonymous movement,” Condra said.

As always, you can check our full conversation in our latest Security Ledger podcast at Blubrry. You can also listen to it on iTunes and check us out on SoundCloud. And, if you like our intro music, give some love to the group JoeLess Shoe, who recorded “Baxton,” the song we use in just about every podcast.

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