During World War II, Ford Motor Company stopped its civilian automobile production and redirected its assembly lines toward military machinery instead. It was one way that a private company used its resources to aid government and country efforts. Decades later, today’s warfare involves more than physical machinery. Russia’s horrific attack on Ukraine is a culmination of the ongoing cybercrimes and disinformation campaigns it’s used over time to weaken other countries’ infrastructure and social systems, including those of both Ukraine and the United States. The sophisticated cyberattacks coming from Russia are beyond what government intelligence can handle promptly, such that private security & technology companies are the most equipped to defend them. Adequate response to this element of Russia’s offenses calls for top-rate security monitoring as well as the coordination of public and private efforts.
Technology in Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: Cyberattacks and Responses to Them
Shortly before Russia’s tanks arrived in Ukraine, Microsoft’s Threat Intelligence Center received alerts of an unprecedented “wiper” malware aimed at Ukraine’s government and financial institutions. It was designed to erase data in those institutions’ networks. Microsoft notified Ukrainian cyberdefense officials and was able to block the malware’s code within three hours. It wasn’t long before the company was also coordinating with other European nations to ensure that this attack didn’t spread more broadly.
When such attacks happen in cyberspace—particularly when they’re coupled with physical attacks on the ground at the same time—government and military systems don’t have the infrastructure to detect and respond to them as quickly as a cybersecurity specialist like Microsoft can. Since Russia’s invasion strategy includes debilitating the target’s digital systems, technology companies are finding themselves in a position where leadership and responsibility go beyond their normal customer-facing roles.
Google’s online dominance has allowed it to monitor hacking and influence campaigns coming from Russia, and the tech giant has now temporarily shut down its Google Maps’ live traffic and related features in Ukraine in order to help stop local communities there from being targeted by Russian invaders. A lot of disinformation tactics have taken place through social media—so companies like Meta, Twitter and YouTube have the role of discovering hacked accounts, which include those of Ukrainian public figures and military officials. And there are several other ways that large companies from Apple to Netflix are responding to the actions that Russia has taken.
Russia’s Cyber Capabilities
Russian-based hackers have been meddling in other countries’ social networks for years now, including in attempts to influence U.S. elections through fake social media accounts. Such efforts are still taking place now within this invasion. For example, false information about Ukrainian districts surrendering is intended to weaken and confuse other communities that see it.
Last year, Russian ransomware hit hospitals, food processing, and the Colonial Pipeline network in the United States. And Russia’s intelligence agency SVR infiltrated the network software of thousands of U.S. government agencies and private businesses in the SolarWinds attack.
It’s clear that cyber attackers in Russia are sophisticated and adept—and the extent of the Russian government’s cooperation with various hackers within its borders is less clear and more worrying. Some cyber experts have noted that while the usual hacking and disinformation campaigns have gone on (and increased) during Russia’s invasion, the aggressing country has so far refrained from conducting an all-out, devastating cyberattack as part of its assault. But it is yet to be seen whether such a larger attack will occur, and we know that Russian forces are capable.
Protecting Networks and Aiding in Defense
If Russia does continue to expand its invasion with more cyberattacks, those with the ability to help should do so. This effort requires coordination between government leaders and private companies, to a point unlike ever before. Microsoft’s President Brad Smith has already stated his company’s position and its readiness to work with the Ukrainian government as well as NATO, other European nations, and the U.S. to aid in defense during this unjustified invasion. Hopefully, other leading companies will continue to take appropriate actions as well.
As a technology organization and a Microsoft partner, we are also deeply troubled by Russia’s actions both on the ground and in the digital space, which has become so central to operations around the world. Just as we are committed to helping businesses thrive, so too do we recognize that this commitment extends to a broader responsibility to support peace and democracy as well. Technology is a powerful tool which should be used to protect and strengthen those values, and we want to uphold them in every way that we can.