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Cyberwarfare and Bitcoin: tensions between the US and Russia

Photo of: Joseph Stone
by Joseph Stone

For the past few months, we have been witnessing an upsurge in computer attacks in the form of ransomware. These block the computer systems of target companies and unlock them only after receiving a ransom, usually in bitcoin (BTC). The majority of the virulent operators in recent months are based in Russia. Thus, President Joe Biden has just warned Vladimir Putin to dismantle these networks.

Are we heading for a cyber cold war?
The United States and Russia have been clashing for several years in the field of cyber espionage and computer attacks. In 2016, the SVR RF, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, hacked into the accounts of senior Democratic officials at the Democratic National Committee. This affair led to the publication of compromising e-mail exchanges, notably involving Hilary Clinton, then a candidate for the presidency of the country.

Some senior U.S. politicians go so far as to consider that this attack has cost the election to Clinton. This is why Donald Trump and his campaign managers were accused of manipulating the election with the support of foreign forces. However, the involvement of the Trump clan, in this case, was never proven.

Subsequently, the SVR also infiltrated the SolarWind security system, which is used by 70 percent of US federal agencies. Because of this flaw, Russian services were able to read the conversations of all these agencies for several months, until the flaw was revealed.

Nowadays, ransomware attacks are not only targeting government agencies and political figures but also companies. Last month, the Russian hacker group DarkSide crippled the East Coast by attacking the operator of the largest U.S. oil pipeline, Colonial Pipeline. In May, REvil, another Russian ransomware group, also extorted $11 million from the largest U.S. meat producer after shutting down production for several days.

Biden is under increasing pressure to take action to stem costly hacks that threaten critical U.S. infrastructure. After weeks of generic warnings and diplomatic maneuvers, Biden issued a strong warning. In his Friday, July 9 phone call, President Biden stated:

Biden’s ultimatum was triggered by a sophisticated ransomware attack last weekend by the REvil group, which authorities say operates with impunity from Russia.

If the hacks don’t stop, the U.S. is considering responding with cyberattacks on the servers used by the Russian thugs. The heightened tensions associated with the ransomware attacks highlight the complexity of a new type of conflict between the United States and Russia, in which the well-established rules and agreements of the Cold War no longer apply.