U.S. Monitors For Cyber Operations In Crimea Standoff

The standoff between Russia and Ukraine is being watched closely to see how a tool of modern warfare, cyber operations, might be employed. So far, what's been seen isn't too sophisticated.

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In its standoff with Ukraine, Russia has imposed its will but it's tried to hide its hand. Russian troops moved into Crimea but in uniforms bearing no Russian insignia. And there are other tools Russia's is believed to have used that leave virtually no trace: cyber operations. They're part of the modern arsenal. Now U.S. officials want to know if the use of cyber weapons could lead to cyber war.

Here's NPR national security editor Bruce Auster.

BRUCE AUSTER, BYLINE: Like some conventional military weapons, cyber ops have names - evocative names. What's being used in Ukraine is no exception. There's Snake. That's a malware tool. It hides on a computer network and steals information. And Snake goes by a bunch of names: there's Ouroboros, Greek for a serpent in mythology. It's also called Agent BTZ, a label with no mythological meaning whatsoever.

No matter what it's called, it's important enough that American officials won't talk about it publicly.

VICE ADMIRAL MICHAEL ROGERS: In terms of specifics I would respectfully ask that this that is perhaps best shared in a classified setting.

AUSTER: That's Vice Admiral Michael Rogers. He was testifying to Congress this week because he's been picked to lead the U.S. Cyber Command. And while he wouldn't get into specifics, he left no doubt that conflict today means computers - not just troops and tanks.

ROGERS: Clearly, cyber will be an element of almost any crisis we're going to see in the future.

AUSTER: And in Ukraine, the term cyber covers a multitude of sins. There are reports that Ukrainian politicians had their phones blocked. And that Russian troops cut the cables of telecom equipment. Websites have been defaced. Ukraine has done this to Russia substituting the word Nazi for Russian. Think of this as cyber graffiti.

LAURA GALANTE: Not hard to do, pretty simplistic.

AUSTER: Laura Galante is an intelligence analyst with the cyber security firm FireEye. She thinks that the use of the sophisticated malware Snake shows that a serious player, like Russia, is in the game. There's evidence Snake's lurked on Ukraine's government networks since long before the current conflict, a sign that cyber operations are happening all the time, war or peace. A version has also been linked to a break-in of secret Pentagon computers back in 2008. Its use now in Ukraine has experts paying attention.

GALANTE: People think, oh wow, here's a window in Russia's cyber capabilities.

AUSTER: Again Laura Galante.

GALANTE: Russia has long been vaunted as this uber-capable almost bogeyman of an actor - they're so good, we just don't see them. So any data points that us in the analytic community can use to understand Russia's real capabilities would be massively useful.

AUSTER: Now, Snake is not cyber war. It's a kind of intelligence gathering. But will Russia cross the line? Will it venture into outright cyber war? It's hard to answer that question. The rules for cyber war have yet to be written.

Catherine Lotrionte is director of the Institute for Law, Science, and Global Security at Georgetown University. She says the rules could be taking shape right in front of our eyes.

CATHERINE LOTRIONTE: And so, watching how the Russia-Ukraine conflict rolls out will tell us a lot about the practice that states are going to be conducting in the cyber realm when it comes to conflict and what rules they're comfortable with accepting or not.

AUSTER: Rules like: How do you know when force has been used? What's a legitimate target? Even what's a weapon? Clearly there's a lot to work out.

Bruce Auster, NPR News, Washington.

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