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Russia attacked Ukraine with bombs and missiles yesterday, February 24. We had been waiting for weeks to see if it was going to happen or not. One of the recurring issues all these days has been the alleged digital war: what was it going to be like, what new dangers was it going to add.
Two fields must first be distinguished. The digital war is played out on two fronts: disinformation and cyberattacks. First, the misinformation:
• Above all, we must understand our time. The featured tweet of “Russia has invaded Ukraine” from the official account @ukraine It has, at the time of writing this piece, 13,000 retweets. A couple of hours before the same account I had tweeted this meme: added 250,000 retweets, almost 20 times more. Beneath the tweet was a warning: “This is not a meme, but ours and your reality right now.” On days like this, a meme is worth as much as a thousand images and statements. The power of Nazism to continue marking the discourse of the leaders of Ukraine and Russia is incredible.
• Information in the digital age has a problem and an advantage. The worst thing is that they are the same: we can all have a similar speaker on the networks. If it’s not on Twitter, Facebook or YouTube, it can be on Reddit or Telegram. From minor networks or hidden channels, it can sneak into more massive networks and in different languages. That allows this entire network of logos, acronyms and channels to be a presumably legitimate speaker of Russian intelligence. Whoever wants to believe President Putin has it very easy. He just needs to go to his sources for biased information. This chart is up to date to February 2022. (There is one in Spanish: Diario Octubre).
Miburo’s 2022 Russian Propaganda & Disinformation Ecosystem chart, with new revelations and a structural update is live on Substack. Read here: https://t.co/dES3lUT96Y
— Miburo (@MiburoSolutions) February 15, 2022
• That is the problem and the advantage is the same. There are more eyes on the ground. Kiko Llaneras explained it in his article for this same section yesterday: TikTok has suddenly become a valuable source of information. TikTok is now because it is the fashion network; before they were YouTube, Facebook or Instagram. Its effective validity, however, depends on the fact that there are people behind it watching those videos and verifying that they are true. They are the open source intelligence community, who has been leading Bellingcat for a few years, a foundation Netherlands based non-profit and that he has confronted Putin in cases such as that of the opposition Alexei Navalni or the Malaysia Airlines plane shot down in Ukraine in 2014.
• Analyst Anna Applebaum warned of an obvious which was also retweeted by the official Ukraine account. The best warning, almost the only one, is to be careful with what we believe. And above all, with what we want to believe. One proof is the success of the Ukrainian Twitter account memes. Where there is a good emotional message that removes any detailed and nuanced information that is difficult to understand.
Appreciation errors are not only human. The networks themselves are wrong and generate even more confusion. Twitter deleted several legitimate accounts documenting Russian military activity. The initial suspicion was that it was due to the massive complaint from fraudulent Russian users. On Twitter they were in charge of denying it: they never take action just because of a massive report of an account, precisely to prevent adversaries from taking advantage of it. It is a legend that has been circulating for a long time.
• Has the “cyber Pearl Harbor” arrived? These disinformation notices are more viewed. They’ve been around for years, and now they may face their biggest test: a real invasion with missiles and tanks. It is no longer an election or an assault on Capitol Hill, or even a pandemic.
But with Ukraine the real fear was the cyber war that would end all cyber wars: the famous “cyber Pearl Harbour” that would mark a before and after. But so far, nothing very noteworthy.
This quote from a Ukrainian official in an Associated Press ticker on Thursday puts things in context. The article is about the denial of service attacks that affected Ukrainian government websites yesterday Thursday morning: they are attacks that serve to prevent visiting the page or slow it down. This was the teletype: “Asked if the attacks were continuing this Thursday morning, Defense official Victor Zhora did not reply: ‘Are you serious?’, he wrote in a message. ‘We have ballistic missiles on top of us.’”
Cyber warfare experts have long warned about the need to put the seriousness of these attacks into context. No one knows for sure what could end up happening or how, but it is known that so far it has not happened. One of the best proofs that it has not happened is that Russia has needed to enter Ukraine with tanks to achieve its presumed objectives. The attacks of all kinds launched since 2014 have had varying degrees of success, they have affected everyone, but they have not definitively advanced their cause.
That said, is there any country out there with its finger on a button that would launch a cyberattack that would leave an entire country unresponsive? It is difficult but possible. So far no one has seen it.
This extensive article by two experts in cybersecurity tries to put some evidence in this field given to grandiose headlines, more in days of tension like the ones we have pending from Ukraine:
The evidence suggests that the threat is exaggerated. Russia has been trying for eight years to get Ukraine to abandon its pro-European Union and NATO foreign policy through a combination of diplomacy, coercion and subversion that included multiple cyber operations. Those efforts failed. And that is why Russia has switched to a more costly and risky instrument of power, but also more powerful: military force.
Cyber operations are not irrelevant, nor are surprise cyber attacks impossible. But in assessing its threat we should distinguish between what is possible in theory and what is feasible and therefore probable in practice. And there the evidence clearly indicates that it is likely that cyber operations will not be able to replace the use of force, nor to significantly improve military effectiveness.
There is a derived option that can have unforeseen consequences. In addition to the denial of service attack, in the last two days a wiper, a malicious program that erases the content of the computers it attacks, has destroyed computer systems of key centers of the Ukrainian defenses, not only inside the country, but also in Lithuania and Latvia.
This apparent internationalization of the conflict has led to fears as to what would happen if a new NotPetya, an attack against systems within the country that spread throughout the world and caused extensive damage to several global companies. These types of attacks can occur by will, by chance or by mistake. What would be the response if systems suddenly start going down in London or Munich? What should be the answer? In this field, everything depends a lot on everything: it depends on the attack, it depends on whether it is very clear who the attacker was, it depends on its real consequences, it depends on those affected. It is a very thorny territory.
“There is no winning bullet available to the West. Talking about cybernetics as “the deterrent missile of our era is crazy”, writes Oxford University professor Ciaran Martin. “The cyber domain can influence, but it will not decide this crisis. I’m not saying this to underestimate the horror, nor the importance of the cyber dimension. But realism helps us prepare better. In the West, caution and preparation without panic are the proper posture in cybersecurity,” he adds.
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