White House warns of possible Russian cyberattack on US companies, infrastructure

The news: During Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, it has faced resistance from Ukrainian military and civilians and crushing US-led economic sanctions, all of which could lead to Russian hackers targeting US companies, per Ars Technica. 

How we got here: The Biden administration warned this week that there's a heightened alert for Kremlin-sponsored strikes on US-based firms and utilities.

  • “Today, we are reiterating those warnings, and we’re doing so based on evolving threat intelligence, that the Russian government is exploring options for potential cyberattacks on critical infrastructure in the United States,” said Anne Neuberger, the White House’s deputy national security advisor for cyber and emerging technology.
  • Neuberger warned that US officials are seeing potential preparations from Kremlin-backed hackers, such as scanning targets’ networks for security vulnerabilities.
  • Intelligence reports, per Neuberger, reveal that there is an evolving threat potential as retaliation for economic embargoes against Russia. Further, she said the “White House has privately briefed hundreds of companies against potential threats.”
  • Utilities and power-generation companies are the most vulnerable. In context, nearly 40% of the country’s electricity comes from natural gas pipelines. 
  • Municipal power and water authorities are likely more vulnerable since some may not have budgets for cybersecurity.

Shields up! The announcement is a call to action for Americans to proactively harden their cyberdefenses. “This is a critical moment to accelerate our work to improve domestic cybersecurity and bolster our national resilience,” President Biden said in a statement. 

  • The Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has created a “Shields Up” webpage outlining various defensive steps that companies, businesses, and citizens can take to strengthen their cybersecurity.
  • The guidance includes addressing known vulnerabilities, setting up response protocols, creating backups, implementing multi-factor authentication, and changing passwords regularly.

The big takeaway: While the American government and the public sector are preparing for potential cyberattacks, the call to action is a global concern. World systems and networks are inextricably connected, which means weak spots could exist anywhere.

Russian military-intelligence hackers sent the NotPetya malware into Ukrainian networks in 2017, and the infection spread to a small US hospital system, which lost the use of its Windows PCs and was frozen out of a medical transcription service used by hundreds of hospitals, per the Atlantic.