Malware traffic traced back to the Ukraine and Russia spiked in March at the height of the conflict between the two countries, according to FireEye. Kenneth Geers, senior global threat analyst for FireEye, theorizes that there is a distinct correlation between this cyber activity and the crucial geopolitical situation -- and he is now digging deeper into historical data to see if the Russia-Ukraine malware spike is part of a trend. If it is, this could be another asset to threat intelligence.
In March, Russia's parliament authorized the use of military force in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin signed a bill incorporating the Crimean peninsula into the Russian Federation, and Russian military forces massed along the Ukrainian border.
Callbacks to the Ukraine steadily increased leading up to those events. According to FireEye's data, in March 2013, Ukraine only ranked 14th on the list of top countries to receive first-stage malware callbacks. In March 2014 it leaped to ninth place. Similarly, FireEye detected 30 million callbacks to Russia over the past 16 months. In February, Russia ranked seventh on the list of top 20 countries to receive first-stage malware callbacks; in March, it jumped to third place.
As Geers explained in a blog post yesterday:
- What I want to convey in this blog is that generic, high-level traffic analysis -- for which it is not always necessary to know the exact content or the original source of individual communications -- might be used to draw a link between large-scale malware activity and important geopolitical events. In other words, the rise in callbacks to Russia and Ukraine (or to any other country or region of the world) during high levels of geopolitical tension suggests strongly that computer network operations are being used as one way to gain competitive advantage in the conflict.
Geers says that it's logical to imagine that the activities of both nation-state actors trying to gain the upper hand and opportunistic financially driven attackers capitalizing on a bad situation would increase during major geopolitical events.
The extra traffic probably includes "a little bit of everything," he says, "and in that everything are government hackers fulfilling national security requirements." If a country is on the brink of war, its need for intelligence and counterintelligence increases, causing government hackers to act with more urgency and less regard for obfuscation.
Geers says he's received some pushback from his colleagues within FireEye, who argue that, without knowing more about the content of the malware traffic and without attribution, it's dangerous to speculate that there is a correlation. He acknowledges their criticisms, and he is being careful not to make any grandiose proclamations yet. "This is just a baby step."
He also argues that the traffic analysis itself has strategic use, even in the absence of "attribution" in the traditional sense. He compares it to watching trucks. For example, during World War II, the US military discovered a crucial German tactical site simply by seeing how much traffic was going in that direction. Plus, the old reporters' maxim "follow the pizzas" suggests that you know something big is happening when you see trucks delivering hundreds of pizzas to the White House late at night.
Geers is enlisting the help of other researchers at FireEye to drill deeper and analyze historical data to see if the Ukraine-Russia situation is indeed a trend, and how that information could be used tactically.
"You can find cyber operations that will tip you off to something coming, a pending attack," he says. "Cyber activity is usually a reflection of real-world activity. You have to inform each with some knowledge of the other. Cyber war, for lack of a better term, is part of the landscape now."