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‘They’re Ramping Up their Efforts…’: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk on Russia’s Cyberwar Against Ukraine’s Starlink

After Russia's invasion of Ukraine damaged the country's internet infrastructure, Ukraine's vice prime minister asked Musk for assistance. (FILE)

After Russia's invasion of Ukraine damaged the country's internet infrastructure, Ukraine's vice prime minister asked Musk for assistance. (FILE)

Elon Musk Tweeted a story about countries including the EU blaming Russia for a cyberattack on a satellite internet network

Russia is stepping up its efforts to disrupt Ukraine’s Starlink internet connection, according to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. He said that Starlink has so far resisted all Russian hacking bids.

Musk tweeted a story about the United States, Britain, Canada, Estonia and the EU blaming Russia for a cyberattack on a satellite internet network that took tens of thousands of modems offline amid the Russia-Ukraine war.

Ukraine’s fibre optic and cellular communication infrastructure connections were cut during the Russian invasion on February 24.

About 5,000 Starlink terminals were given to the war-torn country by SpaceX and the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

Viasat confirmed last month that modem-wiping malware disrupted Viasat’s fixed broadband service in Ukraine and parts of Europe connected to its KA-SAT satellite network.

In the tweet, the billionaire clearly stated that so far, Starlink has resisted Russian cyberwar jamming and hacking attempts, “but they’re ramping up their efforts”.

SUPPORT FOR UKRAINE INFRA

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine damaged the country’s internet infrastructure, Ukraine’s Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov asked Musk for assistance. Musk responded by sending Starlink terminals to Ukraine, and the network has since been subjected to attempts to jam or hack it.

The minister said earlier this month that there were approximately 150,000 active Starlink users per day in the country, providing critical support for Ukraine’s infrastructure and the restoration of destroyed territories.

Satellite communication has become an important tool, but it has also become a popular target for hackers.

The National Security Agency (NSA) in the US has updated its advice to satellite operators and their customers on how to protect networks from espionage and disruption cyberattacks. Recently, in a statement, it said, “The recent U.S. and European Union public statements noted the Russian military launched cyberattacks against commercial satellite communications to disrupt Ukrainian command and control in February 2022.”

According to the agency, this cyber activity against Ukraine emphasises the risk of espionage and disruption to VSAT communications.

The NSA issued advice directed at US government agencies a month before Viasat’s multi-day outage in Europe, warning that VSAT communications are frequently not secured in transit. VSAT’s virtual network separation, according to the NSA, cannot be trusted to provide access control, separation, or secrecy of sensitive information and therefore recommends using VPNs for secure VSAT communications.

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The NSA’s amended alert is mostly unchanged, but it now contains a new section admitting EU and US blame for Russian military attacks on VSATs.

As reported, VSATs throughout Ukraine and Europe was deactivated as a result of the activity, including tens of thousands of terminals outside of Ukraine that, among other things, support wind turbines and provide internet services to private consumers.

ATTRIBUTION AT EU LEVEL

It is highly rare for the EU to blame a third country for a cyberattack. Individuals from North Korea, Russia, and China have been sanctioned across the EU for their roles in previous cyberattacks on European countries, albeit some years after assaults like WannaCry and NotPetya.

However, according to a study of recent cyberattacks conducted by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), an attribution at the EU level is difficult, partly because only a few EU member countries – such as Sweden, the Netherlands, Estonia, Austria, France, and Germany – have the technical ability or political will to do so.

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In addition, under the parameters of the EU’s 2017 cyber diplomacy toolkit, the EU has abstained from attributing cyberattacks to third countries because each member state’s action is a sovereign political decision.

The EU claimed the Russian military attack on Viasat’s network went against all UN Member States’ expectations of responsible State behaviour and cyberspace intentions, including the Russian Federation’s.

The European Commission is currently working on a formal opinion on Ukraine’s emergency application to join the EU.

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first published:May 13, 2022, 14:18 IST