INFRASTRUCTURE PROTECTIONHow Can Countries Protect Critical Infrastructure from Cyberattacks?

By Janosch Delcker

Published 30 September 2022

Hacking attacks on power grids, telecom networks, or governments can paralyze entire societies. That makes them a powerful military weapon, as the war in Ukraine demonstrates. How can countries protect themselves?

Berlin’s top diplomat did not sugarcoat things. 

To ensure that during a major cyber attack, people in Germany “can still use railways and receive medical treatment, and that police forces can still operate,” the country needs to ramp up its cybersecurity measures, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told government officials from around the world gathered for a conference in Potsdam this week.

We need stronger and more resilient infrastructure,” she said. 

Her warning highlighted what officials at the event described as a worrying trend: Countries worldwide report an increase in cyberattacks against some of their critical infrastructure such as power grids, water suppliers, or government agencies — assets so vital to a nation’s security or economy that everything could collapse without them.

In August, cyber intruders crippled the IT infrastructure of Montenegro. In July, attackers brought down government websites in Albania. And in the spring, hackers paralyzed the computer systems of almost three dozen government agencies in Costa Rica — prompting the country to declare, for the first time in history, a national emergency because of a cyber attack. 

Behind most of the attacks are cybercriminals who make billions by taking computers hostage and demanding a ransom to return access. But Germany’s foreign minister warned that states are also increasingly using cyberattacks as a powerful tool in military conflicts to weaken their enemy.

Cyber technology has also become part of modern warfare, as we have seen in Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine,” Baerbock said. 

Lessons from Ukraine
The experience of the besieged country provides new insights into how cyberattacks are used as a military weapon.

When Russia launched its invasion in February, the number of hacking attacks against targets in Ukraine or with links to the country simultaneously began to skyrocket, according to Oleksandr Potii, the deputy chairman of Ukraine’s Special Communication and Information Protection Service.

Ukrainian authorities later traced most of those cyber attacks back to state actors with ties to Moscow, Potii said. “While some of the attacks were performed by cyber criminals, they were often still coordinated by special services.” 

Whenever those hackers targeted critical infrastructure, their main goal was to cause as much damage as possible in order to sow chaos, he added. 

That was illustrated by an incident involving US satellite firm Viasat. In a concerted effort, just before Russian tanks started rolling into Ukraine, cyberattackers crippled some of the company’s satellite connections — which Ukraine’s military used to command its troops, causing a setback for the country in the early hours of the war,