HCSS in the media

Coda Story: Alexander Klimburg on Russian false flag attacks

October 23rd 2019 - 17:00

According to a new report from UK and U.S. intelligence agencies, Russian hackers impersonated Iranian hackers. Coda Story asked Alexander Klimburg, director of the Cyber Policy and Resilience Program at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, for a comment.

Klimburg said the disclosure by U.S. and UK authorities can help the public understand that cyberattacks are difficult to attribute. “I think it helps by showing that attribution is a delicate issue and we should be careful in quickly jumping to conclusions,” said Klimburg in an interview. “This not only makes the public a little bit more wary but it also means that politicians and the media won’t always get the easy answer is that they want.”

But the fact that British and American intelligence revealed that they knew about the impersonation is an important story in itself. When agencies make these kinds of announcements, they are often guided by complex geopolitical calculation and strategy.

“It’s not often that intelligence agencies reveal the extent of their capabilities by unmasking…actors that are used in false flag attacks. It cost them a lot to do so,” Klimburg explained.

So why did they go public?

“One possible answer might be that they were worried this…network was going to be used to carry out a highly destructive attack and wanted to warn the Russians that it wasn’t going to fly,” Klimburg said. “Similarly, it may be an attempt to warn that the supposed Iranian disinformation campaign against the U.S. recently uncovered on Instagram and Facebook might actually also be of Russian origin.”

Ultimately, though, he said the main goal of the disclosure is likely to discourage further false flag attacks in cyberspace, a practice that can turn dangerous if states retaliate against the wrong adversary. Wired has an interesting run-down of other times Russian hackers have pretended not to be Russian hackers.

“Overall…[the disclosure] aims to help push back against a rising trend, namely that a false flag attack — and I particularly worry about fake cyber terrorism — may be used to influence the geopolitical narrative,” said Klimburg.

Read the full article at the Coda website here.

Dr. Alexander Klimburg is currently the Director of the Cyber Policy and Resilience Program at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies and the Director of the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace Initiative and Secretariat. He is also a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an Associate Fellow at the Austrian Institute of European and Security Policy.