The US and UK issued a joint warning on Monday that Russia was deliberately targeting critical western internet-based infrastructure with a series of cyber intrusions that threatened home and business routers.
Jeanette Manfra, assistant secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security, said Washington had “high confidence” the Russian government was behind the alleged intrusions.
“We hold the Kremlin responsible for its malicious cyber activities,” she said, adding officials were unable to determine the full scope of the claimed compromise.
US and UK officials have warned for months that Moscow is attempting to compromise electricity grids and other infrastructure such as banks, hospitals and air traffic control systems. But this is the first time the allies have issued specific guidance to civilians and companies on how to protect themselves. A joint report published on Monday includes advice on password and device security.
“Once you own the router, you own the traffic,” said Ms Manfra. Russia was trying to seize control of connectivity, including routers, firewalls and network intrusion detection systems, with a view to espionage, intellectual property theft or pre-positioning for offensive action, she said.
“There are millions of machines being targeted globally,” said Ciaran Martin, head of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre. He framed the alert as part of an allied “fightback against state-sponsored aggression in cyber space”.
The joint warning comes as tensions between the US and Russia are at a low following the US-led military strikes on Syria at the weekend. The White House said earlier on Monday it was considering imposing more sanctions against Russia for supporting the alleged use of chemical weapons by the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
But Rob Joyce, cyber security co-ordinator at the White House, said Monday’s warning was not related to the strikes.
However, the bombing raids have drawn a sharp rebuke from Vladimir Putin, Russian president, who said Moscow “condemns the attack in the most serious terms”.
The Pentagon said earlier that the number of Russian bots active on social media had increased by 2,000 per cent in the wake of the Syria strikes.
The alleged Russia-linked online influence networks were “intended to discredit or undermine US and allied countries generally, and more specifically our objectives, motivations, and ultimately our actions, in Syria,” said Major Dave Eastburn, Pentagon spokesman.
Russia has repeatedly denied western accusations that it is organising cyber attacks.
After the US and the UK accused Russia in February of being behind the 2017 NotPetya ransomware attack, which mostly hit users in Ukraine but spread more widely, the Kremlin said the accusations were “unproven, groundless and nothing less than the continuation of a baseless Russophobic campaign”.
Mr Putin has also repeatedly denied Russia used the internet to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election, an allegation that has become the subject of a special investigation in the US.
Last month, Mr Putin said 13 Russians indicted for running an infamous “troll farm” in St Petersburg that impersonated US voters on social media were “private citizens who don’t represent the Russian government”.
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