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Local experts warn about possible cyberattacks amid Russia-Ukraine conflict

“There’s a recognition that Russia is sophisticated. They are capable, and they are very good at sitting silently," said one MSU School of Criminal Justice professor
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Posted at 2:52 PM, Feb 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-24 18:13:16-05

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Now that Russia has invaded Ukraine physically, local experts are warning about the potential for cyberattacks. Even though the United States is not at war with Russia, our country could be a target.

“There’s a recognition that Russia is sophisticated," said Tom Holt, a professor at Michigan State University's School of Criminal Justice. "They are capable and they are very good at sitting silently.”

The explosions that hit Ukraine's capital city of Kyiv early Thursday morning local time marked the start of the Russian invasion. Those were anything but silent.

As video circulates of the sirens that rang through Kyiv, we are reminded of the typical scenes of warfare. However, Holt said we also have to consider the quiet attacks that go on behind the scenes made in the cyberspace.

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“If you can make a target unable to use water, power, sewer, whatever the resource might be, they're going to be focused on this problem," said Holt. "Then you can launch a much more effective physical attack because the target will be distracted.”

Holt said Russia already made several cyberattacks on Ukraine in the days leading up to the invasion, targeting government and bank websites.

“There's been reports out of Ukraine of what's called wiping malware that has the capacity to essentially turn a computer into a brick — completely useless," said Hold. "So when those kinds of attacks are being observed, that means the risk of a serious cyberattack is... is high.”

That risk is not isolated to Ukraine. Holt said other countries, like the United States, could also be hit, either directly or as collateral damage.

“We can imagine that might happen here," said Hold. "Either to hinder military response to affect physical or domestic operations in some way that might make us a little harder to respond to Russian threats in Ukraine than we might want to be.”

He added, “Anything that, say, affects a bank or some kind of company that has ties to Ukraine or has infrastructure there, they may be hit ancillary just by virtue of the attacks that are occurring from Russia against Ukrainian resources.”

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Holt said Russia has been very effective in the cyberspace for decades now, making what's commonly referred to as Advanced Persistent Threats, or APTs. Holt said they use sophisticated malware that isn't detected until it's way too late.

The U.S. has fallen victim to that multiple times in recent years, most notably in the 2016 presidential election.

“That's a combination of both phishing, where simple forms of attack were used, coupled with malicious software and with the use of the information derived from those hacks being used for disinformation campaigns," Holt said.

So far, there hasn't been any official word from the Department of Defense on any cyberattacks in the U.S., though the FBI is warning businesses and local governments to be vigilant for any attempts.

Holt said it's reasonable to believe those attacks will come.

“If we start getting reports in the United States of outages, websites, being down, services being crippled, weird emails, these are all indications that something is happening," said Holt.

If that does happen, Holt said there are a few things you should do to keep your information safe: back up your computer, update any antivirus tools, watch out for phishing emails with sketchy web links, and, of course, use a critical eye when looking at information online because some of it might not be real.

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