07 Oct 2018
Russia's computer scientists, programmers long tied to military, secret services
Written byAnjana Raghav
During the Soviet era, Russia's top computer scientists and programmers largely worked for the secret services.
Dutch officials on Thursday accused four Russians from GRU military intelligence agency of attempting to hack into the global chemical weapons watchdog in The Hague.
Baltic states were first to accuse Russia of cyber attacks
The GRU investigated both fatal poisoning of Russian former double-agent Sergei Skripal, and an alleged chemical attack by Moscow-allied Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Baltic states were the first to accuse Russia of mounting attacks to knock out their sites back in 2007.
Estonia said one such attack had put the country's main emergency service phone number out of action for over an hour.
Russian hackers were accused of attacks on Democrats' Presidential campaign
The Russian hacker group, variously known as Fancy Bear, APT 28, and Sofacy has been linked to GRU and accused of attacks on the US Democrats' 2016 Presidential campaign, together with Russia's FSB security service, the successor to the KGB.
The skills of Russian hackers today developed from a tradition of excellent computing and programming skills dating back to the Soviet era.
Most brilliant Russian students sent to military, space sector: Consultant
"The whole structure of the economy was skewed towards the military sector," said Oleg Demidov, a consultant at the Moscow-based independent think-tank PIR Center.
"All the achievements of Soviet science including the first computers went to serve the military sector," he said.
The most brilliant students were pushed to work in the military and space sector, Demidov added.
Now, Russian hackers are excellently trained, equipped: Demidov
After the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, its armed forces were broken up and most of the top specialists turned to the nascent banking sector in Russia, either to work there or to attack it.
"Now Russian hackers are excellently trained and equipped and they still occupy one of the top positions in banking crime," said Demidov.
Russian computer-scientists study at very strong universities, can work internationally
In 2016, Russian cybersecurity giant Kaspersky estimated that between 2012 and 2015, Russian hackers had stolen at least 790 million worldwide.
Russian computer scientists study at "very strong universities in Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Novosibirsk, Kazan or Krasnoyarsk," said Denis Kuskov of TelecomDaily specialized research agency.
"(The computer scientists) Can work anywhere in the world, in any international company," he added.
More computer scientists have opted to work in Russia
In recent years, however, more computer scientists have opted to stay in Russia.
"The secret services have grown more interested in good programmers and it's easier for them to find work in Russia now," Kuskov said.
In 2012, the Russian Defense Ministry announced it was creating its own "cyber troops". It launched a wide recruitment drive that included promotional videos on social media.
Russian attacks increasing as Moscow can defend its cybersecurity: Demidov
For Oleg Demidov, the growing wave of attacks attributed to Russian hackers has come about as Russia becomes better able to defend its own cybersecurity more strongly, the military sphere included.
"These efforts... have begun to bring results," the consultant said.
Today, however, even the most established players in Russian IT are in the sights of the West.
US banned Kaspersky's anti-virus software over links to Russian intelligence-services
The US in 2017 imposed a ban on the use of Kaspersky's anti-virus software by federal agencies amid concerns about the company's links to the Russian intelligence services.
This week, a military tribunal in Moscow held a closed-door trial for the head of operational control at the FSB's center for information security, Colonel Sergei Mikhalkov, and three alleged accomplices.