US President Joe Biden has called on private companies and organisations in the US to “lock their digital doors”, claiming that intelligence suggests Russia is planning a cyber-attack on the US.
The UK’s cyber-authorities are also supporting the White House’s calls for “increased cyber-security precautions”, though neither has given any evidence that Russia is planning a cyber-attack.
Russia has previously stated that such accusations are “Russophobic”.
However, Russia is a cyber-superpower with a serious arsenal of cyber-tools, and hackers capable of disruptive and potentially destructive cyber-attacks.
Ukraine has remained relatively untroubled by Russian cyber-offensives but experts now fear that Russia may go on a cyber-offensive against Ukraine’s allies.
“Biden’s warnings seem plausible, particularly as the West introduced more sanctions, hacktivists continue to join the fray, and the kinetic aspects of the invasion seemingly don’t go to plan,” says Jen Ellis, from cyber-security firm Rapid7.
Here are the hacks that experts most fear.
BlackEnergy – targeted critical infrastructure attack
Ukraine is often described as the hacking playground of Russia, which has carried out attacks there seemingly to test techniques and tools.
In 2015 Ukraine’s electricity grid was disrupted by a cyber-attack called BlackEnergy, which caused a short-term blackout for 80,000 customers of a utility company in western Ukraine.
Nearly exactly a year later another cyber-attack known as Industroyer took out power for about one-fifth of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, for about an hour.
The US and EU named and blamed Russian military hackers for the attacks.
“Russia could absolutely try to execute an attack like this against the West as an illustration of capabilities and to make a statement,” says Ukrainian cyber-security responder Marina Krotofil, who helped investigate the power cut hacks.
“However, no cyber-attack against a power grid has resulted in an extended interruption of power supply. Executing cyber-attacks on complex engineering systems in a reliable way is extremely difficult and achieving a prolonged damaging effect is sometimes impossible due to in-built protections.”
Experts like Ms Krotofil also hypothesise that this could backfire on Russia too, as the West is most likely to have a decent foothold in Russian networks too.