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Explained: Why US, UK believe Russia is planning a cyber attack on Tokyo Olympics

The US has charged six Russian hackers for allegedly carrying out a series of cyber attacks across the globe, including the 2018 Winter Olympics. The indictment coincided with the British government declaring that Russian hackers were attempting an attack on the Tokyo Olympics.

Written by Mihir Vasavda , Edited by Explained Desk | Mumbai | Updated: October 22, 2020 1:39:47 pm
Tokyo Olympics, 2018 Winter Olympics, 2018 Winter Olympics hacking, Russia hacked 2018 Winter Olympics, Tokyo Olympics hacking Russia, Russia hacking, indian express, express explainedHackers had managed to take down the official website of the 2018 Winter Olympics, which meant thousands of spectators could not print their tickets or get access to information related to the Games. (Photo: AP)

Moments before the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, the Games’ official website went offline. As the ceremony began, the WiFi and televisions inside the main Olympic stadium stopped working. Back then, the organising committee confirmed a cyber attack but did not say where it had originated.

American and British government agencies have claimed Russia was behind the cyber attack that hit Pyeongchang 2018 – and that it has planned something similar for the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics as a part of a “worldwide hacking campaign” that includes the French presidential elections and Ukraine’s electricity grid among others, according to reports.

Russia has denied any wrongdoing. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has not yet responded to the allegations made against the country.

What are the allegations against Russia?

On Monday, the US Justice Department charged six Russian hackers, aged between 27 and 35, for allegedly carrying out a series of cyber attacks across the globe, including the 2018 Winter Olympics. The indictment coincided with the British government declaring that Russian hackers were attempting a similar attack on the Tokyo Olympics, which were to be held this year but which have been postponed to July 2021 because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

How did the hackers conduct the alleged cyber attack?

According to American prosecutors and British intelligence officers, Russia’s military intelligence agency, which goes by the acronym GRU, camouflaged itself as North Korean and Chinese hackers to disrupt the 2018 Winter Games.

They allegedly first sent emails to the members of the IOC, athletes and other companies, as per the court documents obtained by The New York Times. In those emails, the hackers posed as “Olympic or South Korean government officials to trick the recipients into giving them access to key Olympic infrastructure”, The NYT reported.

The GRU also used VPNFilter malware, according to a British government media release, to erase data and disable computers and networks. The Winter Games IT systems and “multiple entities” across South Korea were targetted.

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Did this impact the Winter Olympics?

This enabled the hackers to take down the official website, which meant thousands of spectators could not print their tickets or get access to information related to the Games.

It also allowed them to disrupt the Internet and television service inside the main Olympic stadium during the opening ceremony, and ground the drones that were to be used for the ceremony. Eventually, the part of the ceremony where drones were to be used was visible only for the TV audience after the broadcasters used pre-recorded footage.

The British government said in its release: “The disruption to the Winter Olympics could have been greater if it had not been for administrators who worked to isolate the malware and replace affected computers.”

Who in Russia carried out these alleged attacks?

This exercise was carried out by the GRU unit 74455, the UK government said in its statement. Unit 74455, known as ‘Sandworm’ and ‘VoodooBear’ among other names, is GRU’s Main Centre of Special Technologies and has also been accused of targeting USA’s presidential elections in 2016.

What could be the motive behind the alleged cyber attacks on the Olympics?

John Hultquist, the director of threat intelligence at FireEye, a cybersecurity firm, told The NYT this was a “vindictive attack”. It has been suggested by the prosecutors and government officials in the US and UK that Russia did this because the IOC banned them from competing in the 2018 Winter Olympics as well as the Tokyo Olympics because of state-sponsored doping.

The Guardian reported this was the “first indication that Russia was prepared to go as far as to disrupt the summer Games, from which all Russian competitors had been excluded because of persistent state-sponsored doping offences”.

Why has this alleged plot surfaced now?

Sky News reported that the timing of the UK government’s revelations was “in part” to alert the world to the threat posed to the Tokyo Olympics.

The targets at Tokyo included the Games’ organisers, logistics services, and sponsors, the UK government said.

Katsunobu Kato, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, said Japan would increase efforts to protect the Games, and was in contact with agencies in the US and UK. “We cannot turn a blind eye to malicious cyberattacks that threaten democracy,” Kato was quoted as saying by the Japanese media.

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Have Russia hackers targeted sports events earlier?

This isn’t the first time Russia has been accused of targeting a sports body. In 2016, Russian hackers were accused of breaking into the World Anti-Doping Agency’s database and fished out information about some of the top American athletes, including gymnast Simone Biles and tennis player Venus Williams.

How has Russia responded to the allegations

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected the allegations and described them as “Russophobia”. “Russia has never carried out any hacking activities against the Olympics,” he said.

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