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Strategic Analysis: As Russia-Ukraine Conflict Continues, Malware Activity Rises

Cyber conflicts are a reflection of traditional, “real life” human conflicts. And the more serious the conflict in the “real world,” the more conspicuous its cyber shadow is likely to be. So let’s look at a serious, current international conflict – the one between Russia and Ukraine – to see if we can find its reflection in cyberspace.

One of the most reliable ways to discover computer network operations is to look for malware “callbacks” – the communications initiated from compromised computers to an attacker’s first-stage command-and-control (C2) server. At FireEye, we detect and analyze millions of such callbacks every year.

Table 1, below, shows the top 20 countries to receive first-stage malware callbacks over the last 16 months, according to the latest FireEye data.

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Table 1 – Callback Infrastructure: the Last 16 Months

As we track the evolution of callbacks during this period, we see a likely correlation between the overall number of callbacks both to Russia and to Ukraine, and the intensification of the crisis between the two nations. The two key indicators we see are:

  • In 2013, Russia was, on average, #7 on this list; in 2014, its average rank is #5.
  • In 2013, Ukraine was, on average, #12 on this list; in 2014, its average rank is #9.

The biggest single monthly jump occurred in March 2014, when Russia moved from #7 to #3. In that same month, the following events also took place in Russia and Ukraine:

  • Russia’s parliament authorized the use of military force in Ukraine;
  • Vladimir Putin signed a bill incorporating the Crimean peninsula into the Russian Federation;
  • The U.S. and EU imposed travel bans and asset freezes on some senior Russian officials;
  • Russian military forces massed along the Ukrainian border; and
  • Russian energy giant Gazprom threatened to cut off Ukraine’s supply of gas.

The graphs below provide a closer look at the crucial month of March 2014, specifically comparing it to malware callback data from February.

Figure 1 shows a significant rise in malware callbacks to Russia from three of the top four source countries in February: Canada, South Korea, and the U.S. (Great Britain had a slight decline).

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Figure 1 – Callbacks to Russia in Feb/Mar 2014: Top Four Countries

Figure 2 depicts the same, general rise in callbacks to Russia from many other countries around the world.

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Figure 2 – Callbacks to Russia in Feb/Mar 2014: Rest of World

Figure 3 shows that the sharp rise in callbacks to Russia in March 2014 was seen in every FireEye industry vertical.

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Figure 3 – Callbacks to Russia in Feb/Mar 2014: Industry Verticals

Tables 2 and 3, below, compare the rise in callbacks to Russia and Ukraine against the rise in callbacks to other countries for February and March 2014. It is  important to note that nearly half of the world’s countries experienced a decrease in callbacks during this same time frame.

Table 2 shows the countries that received the highest increase, from February to March 2014, in the number of source countries sending callbacks to them. Ukraine and Russia both placed in the top ten countries worldwide, with Ukraine jumping from 29 source countries to 39, and Russia moving from 45 to 53.

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Table 2 – Callbacks in 2014: Number of Source Countries

Table 3 shows the increase in the number of malware signatures associated with the callbacks to each country for February and March 2014. Ukraine does not appear in the top ten (it tied for #15), but Russia was #4 on this list (again, nearly half of the world’s countries showed no increase or a decrease).

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Table 3 – Callbacks in 2014: Number of Malware Signatures

It is not my intention here to suggest that Russia and/or Ukraine are the sole threat actors within this data set. I also do not want to speculate too much on the precise motives of the attackers behind all of these callbacks. Within such a large volume of malware activity, there are likely to be lone hackers, “patriotic hackers,” cyber criminals, Russian and Ukrainian government operations, and cyber operations initiated by other nations.

What I want to convey in this blog is that generic, high-level traffic analysis – for which it is not always necessary to know the exact content or the original source of individual communications – might be used to draw a link between large-scale malware activity and important geopolitical events. In other words, the rise in callbacks to Russia and Ukraine (or to any other country or region of the world) during high levels of geopolitical tension suggests strongly that computer network operations are being used as one way to gain competitive advantage in the conflict.

In the near future, we will apply this methodology to other global occurrences to further identify patterns that could provide valuable advanced threat protection insights.

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About Kenneth Geers

Kenneth Geers (PhD, CISSP) is a Senior Global Threat Analyst at FireEye. Dr. Geers spent twenty years in the U.S. Government, with lengthy tours at NSA, NCIS, and NATO. Kenneth was the first U.S. Representative to the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Estonia and is the author of "Strategic Cyber Security", Editor of "The Virtual Battlefield: Perspectives on Cyber Warfare", Technical Expert for the "Tallinn Manual on the International Law Applicable to Cyber Warfare", and author of more than twenty articles and chapters on cyber conflict. Follow him on Twitter @KennethGeers.