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Russia-Ukraine cyber escalation: Ukrainian 'hacktivists' battle Russia online

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In some ways, the war between Russia and Ukraine is the most visible in history, made so by the almost universal ability to take video and post it online. We now have an update on a part of the war that is invisible - Ukraine is upgrading its hacking. NPR's cybersecurity correspondent Jenna McLaughlin spoke with a secretive Ukrainian hacktivist group that says it's carrying out cyber missions. Hey there, Jenna.

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who is this group?

MCLAUGHLIN: So they go by Cyber Regiment in English, and I spoke to two of the founding members. They're part of a trend that's a larger thing that I've been reporting on since the beginning of the war. There are a lot of these volunteer cyber groups, maybe the most famous being Ukraine's IT Army. They started out pretty chaotic, disorganized, but now a lot of them are becoming more skilled and effective. Here's how Sergii Laba, one of the group's founders, put it.

SERGII LABA: Now we have much more strategic and specific goals. We use our resources, skills and knowledge to get certain data from certain sources or companies or whatever.

INSKEEP: What does he mean by certain data from certain sources?

MCLAUGHLIN: So he didn't go into too many specifics, but the founders of Cyber Regiment told me about what their current campaign is. They're calling it Undercover Chronicles, and basically the goal is to crowdsource intelligence about Russian spies. They're giving a prize to the winner, and then they're sending that intelligence on to Ukrainian officials. Here, listen to how Laba describes it. It's like they've gamified intelligence gathering.

LABA: Briefly, this online event, Undercover Chronicles, invites all enthusiasts to take part in a unique special mission to find three employees of the FSB of Russian Federation.

MCLAUGHLIN: Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Cyber Alliance, which is another one of these groups, they recently took credit for taking out a ransomware group with ties to Russia. And yet another group breached Alfa Bank, which is the infamous financial institution that's favored by the Russian elite. And they were helped by Ukraine's intelligence agency, the SBU, a source told me. So, Steve, not only are these groups having an impact, they're also teaming up with the government and providing real intelligence on Russian targets. And that could be bolstering an ongoing war crimes case that Ukraine is building against Russian hackers at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

INSKEEP: Oh, interesting. So going after the Russian hackers with criminal charges, potentially. How's that going?

MCLAUGHLIN: Yeah, they've got a case. And that was bolstered last week when Google's Mandiant revealed that they tracked a cyberattack that caused a power outage in Ukraine's energy sector, right at the same time as Russia launched a bunch of missiles at Ukraine's critical infrastructure last winter. So Russian hackers are really continuing to target Ukraine's energy sector, their media, other parts of society. It's a challenge every single day.

INSKEEP: How big a part of the conflict is this cyber war?

MCLAUGHLIN: I think it still really matters, you know, especially as fighting stalls and the rest of the world is distracted by other news because hackers see that as an opportunity to get away with things that they otherwise might not. Russia's tactics are always advancing. You know, Mandiant said that this recent attack on the grid last winter was sneaky and hard to detect. But even so, Ukrainian cyber officials have told me across the board that they're feeling more prepared because they had the chance to learn about Russia's tactics last winter, and more of the country has acquired emergency backup generators. Regardless, what's happening in Ukraine is really challenging a lot of traditional notions about how we view war, including in cyberspace.

INSKEEP: Jenna, thanks.

MCLAUGHLIN: Thank you so much.

INSKEEP: NPR cybersecurity correspondent Jenna McLaughlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAKENOBU'S "CONCLUSIVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Jenna McLaughlin
Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.
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