'Peacetime in cyberspace is a chaotic environment' says senior US advisor

The internet is now the first battleground of any new war – before the shooting starts

Black Hat Asia Cyber war has become an emerged aspect of broader armed conflicts, commencing before the first shot is fired, cybersecurity expert Kenneth Geers told the audience at the Black Hat Asia conference on Friday.

"Peacetime in cyberspace is a chaotic environment," said Geers, who has served as a visiting professor at Kiev National Taras Shevchenko University, represented the US government at NATO, and held senior roles at the National Security Agency. "A lot of hacking has to be done in peacetime."

Geers said the Russia-Ukraine war demonstrates how electronic and kinetic conflicts interact. Ahead of the Ukraine invasion, Russia severed network cables, commandeered satellites, whitewashed Wikipedia, and targeted military ops via mobile phone geolocations.

Geers highlighted that Russia's DDoS attack on the Ukraine began 10 days before its soldiers invaded on February 24. A day before the official war began, Russian cybersecurity operations began to execute wiper attacks, targeting Ukrainian systems and deleting its data.

That same day, February 23, the "psyops" began. These psychological operations included misinformation in the form text messages sent to Ukrainian soldiers that they should surrender, messages to citizens about non-functioning ATMs creating bank panic, and even deepfakes of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky surrendering.

According to Geers, successfully maintaining connectivity has been a critical element of Ukraine's response to the Russian invasion because it has allowed information to keep flowing.

"You can hack my computer, but I'm going to grab my friend's device, or cell phone," Geers said, adding that connectivity meant President Zelensky was able to communicate with allies and appeal for assistance, despite constant bombing and surrounding physical combat.

He noted that the war has been collaboratively fought across the world as both lone hackers and collectives like Anonymous conduct operations against Russia. The collaborative effort has amounted to considerable interference, he said.

"Simple information operations have outshined complex attempts," said Geers, who reiterated that Ukraine's cyberspace strength in this war lies in community and working with researchers and allies who are unrelated and may be complete strangers.

"You want to take advantage of the power of web to succeed," he said.

As a mid-war assessment, Greer offered that information operations and communications are the key to survive conflict amid DDoS attacks, computer espionage, and other raids against vulnerabilities.

While under attack, those in the war environment will find alternative routes to communicate. After all, Geers said, "that's what the web is all about." ®

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