LEILA FADEL, HOST:
U.S. officials continue to warn that a Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine could happen at any time. Yet, the assault in cyberspace may have already begun. NPR cybersecurity correspondent Jenna McLaughlin joins us for more. Hi, Jenna.
JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.
FADEL: So Jenna, what happened in Ukraine this week?
MCLAUGHLIN: So a lot. But in cyberspace, Ukrainian officials have been responding to what's called a denial of service attack. Normally, websites and applications anticipate a certain number of real people logging on. But in this attack, hackers flood the servers with a massive amount of fake traffic. And without protections in place, that knocks the services offline. In this case, hackers targeted multiple government websites, as well as two state banks. Ukrainians were unable to load those sites or log into their online banking portal, though ATMs and bank cards were working. At the same time, the Ukrainian cyber-police said that some people received false text messages, saying that ATMs were down. So services have been restored as of right now. But cyber-experts remain concerned that this attack could be Russian hackers slowly ramping up the pressure against the Ukrainian people.
FADEL: So this seemed clearly aimed at disrupting things, causing panic. But, Jenna, is there any evidence that Russia was actually behind this?
MCLAUGHLIN: That's a good question. Within hours, Ukrainian officials came out with a statement. They said that it's difficult to trace where these kinds of attacks are coming from, which was something that my cybersecurity experts agreed with.
MCLAUGHLIN: However, they believe only Russia would have an interest in doing this kind of damage to Ukraine, particularly right now.
FADEL: OK. But you've mentioned everything's back to normal. How big of a deal were these hacker attacks? What was the goal if it was indeed the Russians?
MCLAUGHLIN: Good question. There's been, actually, a big debate on this. Ukrainian officials said this is the biggest of this kind of cyberattack that they've experienced. And, look; there have been others, including Russian hackers shutting off the lights by hitting the energy grids. Things are back to normal. And denial of service attacks are not the most technically sophisticated. But if Russia was able to convince people that they might lose access to their money, especially as they're worried about an invasion, that has a real psychological impact.
MCLAUGHLIN: I spoke to Olena Prokopenko. She works on U.S.-Ukraine relations at the think tank the German Marshall Fund. Here's how she described it.
OLENA PROKOPENKO: The goal here was, apparently, to create distrust to government authorities and force customers to overload banking systems by checking and cashing their accounts.
MCLAUGHLIN: But she says that actually wasn't totally successful. There hasn't been a run on the banks. Even so, it's really about the cumulative effect here, the layers of tension, she says.
PROKOPENKO: I must admit that the attack certainly caused a sense of insecurity among the Ukrainian public because with the growing magnitude of each new attack, it is really hard to predict which one of them will actually be fatal.
MCLAUGHLIN: Even so, she and her whole family plan on staying in Kyiv, their hometown.
FADEL: Not an easy decision. So Jenna, what does this all mean heading into the weekend?
MCLAUGHLIN: So contrary to what Putin says, Russian troops have not retreated. They've actually multiplied, according to U.S. officials. While the cyberthreat preoccupied Ukrainians for a couple of hours this week and we could see much worse, including damage to critical infrastructure, it's important to keep in mind that a lot of ordinary Ukrainians could die if Russia chooses to start this war. Olena Prokopenko, the expert I talked to, said she's genuinely terrified right now.
FADEL: Thank you for your reporting. That was NPR cybersecurity correspondent Jenna McLaughlin. Thank you.
MCLAUGHLIN: Thank you.
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