Beware the Cyber-Bear

Criminals, including cybercriminals, people who use the internet to steal personal information or infiltrate commercial, political or government entities, come in all nationalities. But there seems to be a preponderance of cyber-villains who are Russian citizens. And, as was revealed last week, that ignominious group can count at least two Russian intelligence agents among its ranks.

Which raises the question of the role the Russian government itself may have played, and may be playing, in the breach of private electronic domains in the United States.

Last Wednesday, the U.S. charged four hackers, two of them employees of the Russian intelligence agency, the FSB — the successor to the infamous KGB — with masterminding the 2014 theft of 500 million e-mail accounts. The indictment named the FSB officers involved as Dmitry Dokuchaev and his superior, Igor Sushchin, who are both currently in Russia. The indictment was the first time the U.S. government has criminally charged Russian spies for cyber-offences.

The 47-count Justice Department indictment included charges of conspiracy, computer fraud and abuse, economic espionage, theft of trade secrets, wire fraud, access device fraud and aggravated identify theft. The criminal effort, it seems clear, was a broad and ambitious one. And the indictment seemed to imply that Russian security services, in their official capacity, may have been working hand in hand with profit-motivated cybercriminals, with the latter helping the former spy on American concerns.

The charges come in the wake of controversies relating to the alleged Kremlin-backed hacking of the 2016 U.S. presidential election and possible links between Russian figures and associates of President Donald Trump.

The president has forcefully rejected the notion of Russian interference in the election process, and so he has every reason to take clear and strong action to see that Russian cybercriminals are punished, and that the Russian government is strongly warned to desist from infiltration of American private and government interests.

In fact, Mr. Trump asked for the resignation of his national security advisor Mike Flynn after information surfaced regarding his having misled key officials about the nature of his telecommunications with Russian diplomats. (Late last week, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform released documents showing that Mr. Flynn was paid more than $33,750 by Russia’s government-run media system, RT, for appearing at a Moscow event in 2015.)

For its part, the Kremlin has dismissed concerns about cyber-spying that have been voiced by American politicians and media as mere “hysteria,” and aimed at harming relations between Washington and Moscow.

Those relations, cybercrime aside, had already turned frosty at the end of the Obama administration, over Russian aggression in Ukraine, and Russia’s military backing for Damascus in the Syrian civil war.

And the Russian cyberthreat itself is nothing new. Back in 2015, unidentified Russian hackers gained access to offices of the State Department, which they then used to penetrate sensitive parts of the White House computer system, according to U.S. officials. Even then, two years ago, the Director of National Intelligence at the time, James Clapper, told a Senate hearing in February that the “Russian cyberthreat is more severe than we have previously assessed.” It may well have become more severe yet in the ensuing years.

The combination of Russian actions in Crimea and Ukraine, Russia’s support for the Syrian government and the recent suspicions and revelations about cyberspying only complicate what is already a complicated, and much degraded, relationship between Russia and the U.S.

The Soviet Union and the Cold War are, as they say, history. But the Russian black bear has hardly morphed into a teddy bear.

To be sure, the current Russian government has expressed backing for the U.S.’s War on Terror and offered support of various sorts in that effort. Earlier this month in Moscow, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, prior to meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, praised Russia’s contribution to the fight against the Islamic State and al-Qaida, and commended Russia for its “very important contribution” to that cause. “I know,” he said, “that we are partners in the desire to prevent any kind of victory by radical Islam of any sort.”

That partnership, which includes our own country, is important. So, though, is the integrity of private commercial and governmental information. With that in mind, it may be timely to resurrect the words of the Russian proverb that Ronald Reagan, in the context of nuclear disarmament, would often apply to how America should regard the Soviet Union: “Trust but verify.”