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The Russians Love Their PCs Too

The Russians song by Sting was released in 1985, a year after Tom Clancy’s Hunt for Red October. No one could have guessed that within a couple of years, Perestroika and Glasnost would begin to defreeze the US-Russia relations.

The Soviet Union collapse in 1991 marked the end of the 45-years-long cold war, and Tom Clancy had to look for other themes for his thrillers. The International Space Station is a symbol of Russian collaboration with the West. And in the Coen brothers’ film Burn after Reading two gym employees find a disk containing the memoirs of an ex-CIA agent, and go the Russian embassy to try to interest them with US secrets. “The Russians?!” asks the ex-CIA agent whose memoirs are on the disk. “Why the FXXX would they go to the Russians???”

Today’s reality is a bit more complex than that. In the last decade, under the reign of Vladimir Putin, Russian economy boomed and it started to regain much of its global political influence, taking a standoffish approach that in many cases opposes the interests of the US and its European allies. The conflict in Georgia during the last summer Olympics, the support of Iran’s arms race and the Russian claims to North Pole are some examples of this difference of opinion. It’s still not the good old cold war, but let us just say temperature dropped by more than a couple of degrees.

President Obama is trying to restart the US-Russian relationship, and reach understandings in numerous fronts. One of them, it appears, is in the area of Cyber security and Cyber warfare. According to the New York Times report, the United States has begun talks with Russia and a United Nations arms control committee about strengthening Internet security and limiting military use of cyberspace.

Russia, according to the report, was the one pushing the international discussions and asking for a treaty on limiting use of cyber warfare. The US objected, saying it’s difficult to draw a line between military and civilian use of the Internet infrastructure. But last year’s numerous cyber attacks on US military and critical infrastructure, says the New York Times, may have brought second thoughts on the matter, and in any event the main US interest in the talks is not related to cyber warfare, and is very much focused on preventing Internet crime.

Which makes the potential collaboration extremely interesting. Russian hackers have built much of the infrastructure of the Dark Cloud; in a close forum of European fraud fighting professionals I attended in 2008, someone asked: what’s the number one thing that can be done to reduce financial cybercrime? “Bomb Russia”, one of the fraud expert suggested half jokingly. Well, we live in a new age of diplomacy, and if Russia becomes an ally in the global fight against cybercrime, removing barriers and exposing its citizens to international law enforcement investigations, things can change.

Russia has an internal interest here as well. Originally Russian fraudsters targeted US and European financial services – some of them even boasted it’s a Robin Hood thing, they steal from the rich and give to the poor nations. But today many attacks target the nascent Russian online banking and eCommerce industry. You can see a good example in the following screenshot from a Zeus 2.0 Trojan Command & Control screen. Except the US, Russia has the largest number of hijacked PCs controlled by the Zeus operators.

So, to paraphrase Sting, lets hope the Russians love their PCs too, and will become active partners in the international effort to curb cybercrime.

Zeus 2.0 control panel

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Uri Rivner

Uri Rivner

Chief Cyber Officer

BioCatch

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