All’s Fair in Love and War?
by Jonathan Lusthaus
As someone who studies trust among cybercriminals, I often field queries from the curious about what factors disrupt cooperation among online criminals. Until a recent visit to Eastern Europe, one element I hadn’t considered was the significant role that political animosity might play in damaging relationships. My visit to the region made clear that the war in eastern Ukraine is leading to a number of unexpected consequences in the cybercrime sphere, sowing the seeds of distrust among certain players in the Russian-speaking “scene”.
This was an issue raised by a number of local researchers I met with, who go “undercover” and monitor the key Russian-speaking marketplaces. In the past, most Eastern European actors rarely expressed their political views. But recent events have seen a shift. With the conflict simmering on the ground, a number of “flame wars” have developed online, between those broadly in support of Russia and those against it. This has damaged cooperation and led to the breakdown of some long-term and trusting partnerships. Some forums have even had to bring in and enforce rules against political discussion. Max Goncharov’s new report on the Russian underground suggests similar developments as a result of the Ukrainian conflict: fights between forum members with some even being banned or retreating into exile.
In order to understand the significance of these developments, it is important to note that the Russian underground is not actually Russian. It is merely Russian-speaking. While Russian nationals play a key role, and some may have a sense of centrality or superiority, cybercriminals from countries like Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States have played an important role in the business since the early days. Russian provided a common tongue and operating in a Russian-speaking online community opened up a much larger market for cybercriminals in the region. In self-preservation terms, the use of Russian also helped shield each participant’s nationality from local authorities or other criminals taking an interest in them.
A fundamental norm also quickly developed: don’t seek targets in the former Soviet Bloc. Part of this norm can be explained ideologically, stemming from Soviet era propaganda, in that wealthy “bourgeois” foreigners made more deserving targets than economically struggling “comrades” in Eastern Europe. There is also a practical explanation of not wanting to draw the wrath of local law enforcement and security agencies, especially when well insulated against foreign investigations. As Police Dog, one of the well-known CarderPlanet era cybercriminals, wrote: “If we didn’t make a mess on our own doorstep then our local cops and intelligence services didn’t have a problem with us”.
While these explanations have their place, there is almost certainly an economic component involved here as well. In the 1990s and early 2000s, some low-level scams seem to have targeted locals due to the ease of monetisation, avoiding the complications of moving money across borders. But as the West began to rapidly develop the Internet, comparatively wealthy victims and their data became available to those with the right skill sets. It was much more lucrative for Russian-speaking cybercriminals to invest their time and efforts in this new area, especially when Eastern Europeans were less likely to be using credit cards, online banking or purchasing products online and companies in the region were not adopting new technologies to the same degree as those in the West. Locals in former communist countries generally had far less money to steal in the first place, so it seemed only logical to focus attacks overseas.
But change is afoot: there is no longer a dearth of targets in the former Soviet Bloc. The widespread use of the Internet and other new technologies has taken hold in Eastern Europe. New wealth is also emerging. There is money to be made by cybercriminals seeking targets closer to home and there is no doubt that some have been taking advantage of the new opportunities. One Ukrainian researcher suggested that for the last few years Russian-speaking cybercriminals have begun to work “quietly” within their own part of the globe. Of course, there was a loud bang when those behind the Carberp malware began to target online bank accounts in the region, subsequently leading to a number of arrests. This case led to more open talk on forums about Eastern European targets, but many still operate cautiously.
The question now becomes whether recent geopolitical events will lead to the complete dismantling of the norm against carrying out attacks in the former Soviet Bloc. As tensions in the region continue, will the Russian-speaking cybercriminal community become increasingly disjointed and frayed? There is no doubt that politically motivated cyber attacks, whether state directed or not, have increased since the outbreak of war. Local security professionals that have spent much of their careers handling profit-driven cases are now having to shift some of their attention towards cyber espionage, sabotage, activism and terrorism. But some cybercriminals may also harness this opportunity to profit from citizens and institutions in “enemy” countries in the region, using this new political context as cover for their actions, just as the old Soviet propaganda could be used to justify targeting those in the West. Such actions are also likely to bring little heat from national law enforcement when the target is a (newly) unfriendly state’s citizens. Meanwhile, other cybercriminals might care little about politics and simply focus on business, being happy to collaborate with anyone and target any country in the region, as long as there is money to be made.
While norms can seem entrenched, the work of social scientists like Gerry Mackie suggests that if a convention ends, it does so quickly. The inherent nature of a norm is that it is widely agreed upon and applied by interdependent actors. As soon as a tipping point of dissatisfaction is reached, a norm can become unsustainable and almost immediately dissolve. Only time will tell whether the prohibition against targeting former Soviet countries will face this same swift fate.