When U.S. officials warn of the threat foreign cyber spies pose to American companies and government agencies, they usually focus on China, which has long been home to the world's most relentless and aggressive hackers.
But new information shows that Russian and Eastern European hackers, who have historically focused their energies on crime and fraud, now account for a large and growing percentage of all cyber espionage, most of which is directed at the United States.
Individuals and groups in Eastern Europe, and particularly in Russia and Russian-speaking countries, are responsible for a fifth of all cyber spying incidents in the world, according to a global study of data breaches conducted by Verizon, published this week. The spies are targeting a range of companies as varied as the global economy itself, and are stealing manufacturing designs, proprietary technology and confidential business plans. The cyber spies steal information on behalf of their governments in order to manufacture cheaper versions of technologies or weapons systems, or to give their home country's corporations a leg up on their foreign competitors.
The report is based on information provided by computer security companies as well as the U.S. Secret Service and the Department of Homeland Security. Last year, it attributed nearly all incidences of cyber espionage -- 96 percent -- to sources in China. Russia and Eastern Europe didn't even rank in the findings. The United States is by far the biggest victim of cyber espionage, accounting for 54 percent of spying incidences, the report found.
The report's authors say the increase in spying attributed to Russia and Eastern Europe this year is partly the result of new sources of information that reveal more than was previously known about the long reach and sophistication of hackers in those countries. It's difficult to know precisely how much cyber espionage by Russia had gone undetected in the past -- Russian hackers have gone to great lengths to cover their tracks, unlike their counterparts in China, who have generally been easier to detect, said Alan Paller, the a cyber security expert at the SANS Institute.
But that Russian spying is on the rise seems clear, experts said. Spies in East Asian countries, primarily China and North Korea, were still the most active globally, accounting for 49 percent of all cyber espionage incidents, according to the Verizon report. But that data could be skewed by the fact that more cyber espionage campaigns were attributed to Chinese sources -- there could be other Russian campaigns that haven't yet been detected.
That may come as unsettling news for Obama administration officials, who have been watching warily as Russian forces in Ukraine have incorporated cyber spying and warfare alongside conventional military strikes in their swift takeover of Crimea and what looks like an increasingly likely invasion of eastern Ukraine. The report offers new and compelling evidence that Russia is just as interested as the long-time spymaster China in using cyberspace to steal secrets from governments and corporations.
And viewed alongside Russia's successful cyber operations in Ukraine in the past few months, it suggests that Moscow is aggressively ramping up its efforts to dominate cyberspace both for spying and military purposes.
"Intelligence services, as well as cyber criminals, operating in Russia have an interest in collecting information on our government, industry, and economy," said White House spokesperson Laura Lucas Magnuson. "These threats are not going away. We are addressing them by improving our network defenses, sharing information on known vulnerabilities with the private sector, and implementing the president's executive order on improving cybersecurity for U.S. critical infrastructure."
The Russian success is especially stinging for the U.S. because these types of blended attacks -- cyber strikes launched alongside military operations -- are what U.S. military and intelligence officials have for years said will be the hallmarks of America's future way of fighting a war. Indeed, the US military is spending billions of dollars to integrate cyber warfare into military combat and intends to train a force of 6,000 cyber warriors by the end of 2015, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said.