How Ukraine has defended itself against cyberattacks – lessons for the US

In 2014, as Russia launched a proxy war in Eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea, and in the years that followed, Russian hackers hammered Ukraine. The cyberattacks went so far as to knock out the power grid in parts of the country in 2015. Russian hackers stepped up their efforts against Ukraine in the run-up to the 2022 invasion, but with notably different results. Those differences hold lessons for U.S. national cyber defense.

I’m a cybersecurity researcher with a background as a political officer in the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv and working as an analyst in countries of the former Soviet Union. Over the last year, I led a USAID-funded program in which Florida International University and Purdue University instructors trained more than 125 Ukrainian university cybersecurity faculty and more than 700 cybersecurity students. Many of the faculty are leading advisors to the government or consult with critical infrastructure organizations on cybersecurity. The program emphasized practical skills in using leading cybersecurity tools to defend simulated enterprise networks against real malware and other cybersecurity threats.

The invasion took place just weeks before the national cybersecurity competition was to be held for students from the program’s 14 participating universities. I believe that the training that the faculty and students received in protecting critical infrastructure helped reduce the impact of Russian cyberattacks. The most obvious sign of this resilience is the success Ukraine has had in keeping its internet on despite Russian bombs, sabotage and cyberattacks.

What this means for the U.S.

On March 21, 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden warned the American public that Russia’s capability to launch cyberattacks is “fairly consequential and it’s coming.” As Deputy National Security Adviser Anne Neuberger explained, Biden’s warning was a call to prepare U.S. cyber defenses.

The concern in the White House over cyberattacks is shared by cybersecurity practitioners. The Ukrainian experience with Russian cyberattacks provides lessons for how institutions ranging from electric power plants to public schools can contribute to strengthening a nation’s cyber defenses.

National cyber defense starts with governments and organizations evaluating risks and increasing their capacity to meet the latest cybersecurity threats. After President Biden’s warning, Neuberger recommended that organizations take five steps: adopt multifactor password authentication, keep software patches up-to-date, back up data, run drills and cooperate with government cybersecurity agencies.

Access control

Cyber defense begins with the entryways into a nation’s information networks. In Ukraine in recent years, hackers entered poorly protected networks by techniques as simple as guessing passwords or intercepting their use on unsecure computers.

More sophisticated cyberattacks in Ukraine used social engineering techniques, including phishing…

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