Cybercrime , Cyberwarfare / Nation-State Attacks , Fraud Management & Cybercrime

Western Capitals Riled by Russian Hacking

Australian Official Says Russia Should Bring Russian 'Hackers to Heel'
Western Capitals Riled by Russian Hacking
St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow (Image: Michael Wong/CC BY-NC 2.0)

A top Australian official demanded that Russia crack down on hackers operating inside country borders, another sign of deepening Western frustration with Moscow's permissive attitude toward cybercriminals.

See Also: Webinar | Everything You Can Do to Fight Social Engineering and Phishing

Michael Pezzullo, secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, called the notion that conventional law enforcement pressure will curtail Russian hacking activity "completely naive." "They are not a 'rule of law' country," he said during a Wednesday business summit in Sydney, reported Reuters.

"We call on the Russian government to bring those hackers to heel," he said. The comments from Pezzullo, a civil servant, come just weeks after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused the Kremlin of harboring groups such as TrickBot, calling Russia "a safe haven for cybercriminals" (see: US and UK Sanction Members of Russian TrickBot Gang).

Australia experienced a wave of data breaches and ransomware attacks during the second half of 2022. Australian Federal Police fingered cybercriminals likely based in Russia as perpetrators of an invasive leak of information collected from 10 million customers of private insurer Medibank.

The Biden administration has gone from cautiously engaging Russia on cybersecurity in 2021 to making containment of Russian hackers an explicit policy goal. "We want to shrink the surface of the Earth that people can conduct malicious cyber activity with impunity," a senior White House told reporters earlier this month. "If a criminal is restricted to living in Russia and can't leave the borders, then perhaps that might create a bit of a deterrent effect."

Even Germany, which for decades was defined by a policy of engagement with Russia, in late 2022 ousted the head of its federal cybersecurity agency after now-debunked charges surfaced that the director had associated with Russian security services. "The current crisis situation regarding Russian hybrid warfare," demanded the official's removal, a government spokeswoman said at the time.

The beginnings of Russia's trajectory as a cybercriminal sanctuary coincide with economic devastation wrought by the ruble crisis of 1998, a cybersecurity academic who's now a White House official wrote in 2018. With diminished prospects in legitimate software development and weak law enforcement, many of Russia's highly educated tech workforce turned to hacking, wrote Tim Maurer.

In return for tolerating cybercriminals' presence, the Kremlin has access to highly skilled individuals who can become "a pool of potential proxies that can be mobilized at a moment’s notice," Maurer wrote.

The U.S. government has for years highlighted Moscow's use of proxies - accusing the Federal Security Service in 2017 of bankrolling the cyberthieves behind the 2014 hacking of email provider Yahoo.

That connection has grown even more explicit as Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine makes rapprochement between Russia and Western powers less likely. Russian state-owned newswire Tass reported in February that the government intends to explicitly shield hackers acting "in the interests of the Russian Federation" from prosecution.

"We are talking about, in general, working out an exemption from liability for those persons who act in the interests of the Russian Federation in the field of computer information both on the territory of our country and abroad," said Alexander Khinshtein, head of the State Duma Committee on Information Policy.

About the Author

Akshaya Asokan

Akshaya Asokan

Senior Correspondent, ISMG

Asokan is a U.K.-based senior correspondent for Information Security Media Group's global news desk. She previously worked with IDG and other publications, reporting on developments in technology, minority rights and education.

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