Cyber-attack frequency increases with geopolitical tension: analysis

Australia may be a global non-contender as a source of malware callbacks, but analysis of malware from countries with more active malware-broadcasting profiles shows a strong correlation with political events such as the conflict between Russia and the Ukraine, a FireEye researcher has concluded.

In analysing communications from compromised systems back to command-and-control servers around the world, FireEye senior global threat analyst Kenneth Geers concluded that steady climbs in the rankings of both countries suggested that cyber-attacks were playing an increasing role in situations of escalated tensions.

The conclusion was based on a high level of callbacks to servers in Russia, which – although he didn't want “to speculate too much on the precise motives of the attackers behind all of these callbacks” – Geers said could be pegged to key events in the ongoing conflict between that country and Ukraine.

While nearly half the world's countries experienced a decrease in callbacks between February and March of this year, Russia and Ukraine both increased their share of callbacks, by 10 percent and 8 percent respectively.

Educational institutions saw the largest proportion of callbacks to Russia by industry vertical, with government and the high-tech industries the third-biggest targets after seond-place healthcare.

Significantly, Lithuania was the fourth-biggest callback target, outranking the much-larger Russia by three places and receiving callbacks from 39 countries compared to Russia's 53.

Both still lagged countries like Israel, Lithuania and Hungary – which topped the chart after being targeted, along with Turkey, by particularly virulent malware. Yet while it didn't crack the top three in terms of overall volumes, Ukraine received callbacks from 39 countries in March, more than any country but Russia.

“The rise in callbacks during high leves of geopolitical tensions suggests strongly that computer network operations are being used as one way to gain competitive advantage in the conflict,” Geers wrote.

High-level analysis of callback traffic “might be used to draw a link between large-scale malware activity and important geopolitical events”, he said, adding that such analysis would be used in the future in an attempt to provide “valuable advanced protection insights”.

Australia was all but absent from the charts, popping into the top 20 recipients of malware callbacks in June 2013 (when it was ranked 19), August 2013 (19), November 2013 (14) and December 2013 (18).

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