Microsoft pullout will hurt Russia – but the West may suffer too
Experts have sounded mixed security warnings in the wake of the pullout from Russia by Microsoft and other tech giants, with some playing down the impact on ordinary citizens there and others predicting a return to ‘pen and paper.’ More worryingly, others still are warning of a ‘ripple effect’ that could hurt Western businesses further down the digital supply chain.
While most observers seem to agree that Russian citizens and businesses alike will be left reeling by the big tech exodus from the pariah superstate, opinions appear to vary widely on their capabilities to recover. And fears have been voiced that some in the West might be underestimating the impact such a drastic move could also have on companies this side of the divide.
Shmulik Yehezkel, cybersecurity analyst for CYE, said the big tech pullout would cause “all Microsoft-based systems to be potentially exposed to future attacks because they cannot download updates and patches.”
However, he added: “The main potential victims will be in the private sector, and not government entities [that] usually use their own systems or closed networks that are not vulnerable to a lack of updates.”
Alex Artamonov, infosecurity officer at Infinitely Virtual and a regular contributor to cyber industry trade publications, had more dire predictions for the Federation.
“As tech companies leave, Russia is becoming more vulnerable,” he said. “Licenses that are due to expire will not be renewed, applications will stop working, hardware that fails will not be replaced, new equipment cannot be deployed. They might be cut off from the global internet, or they will be weak enough to be completely taken over by any adversary.
“This impacts more than just cybersecurity, it impacts everyone and everything. They will end up going back to pen and paper as computers stop operating due to lack of updates, expired licenses, and failures.”
Beware the blowback
Marianne Bailey, a former senior cybersecurity executive at the National Security Agency (NSA) and partner at consultancy Guidehouse, went another step further, warning of “ripple effects” further down the line that could blow back on Western companies, too.
“With cyber[security], people don't really understand the knock-on effects of these types of things,” she said. “We're so globally interconnected, it's [a case of] 'cut off your nose to spite your face.’”
Citing an NSA study that found France to be a key player in the supply chain for vital cybersecurity tools such as multi-factor authentication used in the US, Bailey warned of “second and third order effects” that could see organizations outside of Russia also suffering as a result of corporations there being hit by tech sanctions.
“Most people and companies don't really understand where all the sub components that we have come from,” she said. “We don't look on our computer and see where every chip is made, same thing with everything you have now that's digital – you don't know, right? You get bits and pieces from all different places.”
Russians will rally
Moreover, it would be a mistake to assume that Russian citizens will be left helpless in the face of increased security threats caused by the big tech pullout.
Ori Nil, director of incident response at Mitiga, confirmed that vulnerability to attacks would increase for some Russian citizens as a result of Microsoft and Cisco no longer delivering security updates, such as patching and antivirus definitions. But he added: “Security-aware individuals and tech-savvy users will probably bypass any regional restrictions and find a way to patch and update their systems as usual.”
Nil believes that, if anything, it is Russian firms and not private citizens that will be under greater pressure to shore up their cybersecurity defenses.
“For enterprises, the impact of tech giants pulling out of Russia is probably more serious due to reliance on enterprise features, support, the importance of updates, and cybersecurity implications,” he said. “If services like AZURE and Office 365 are affected, there may be a transition towards other cloud providers, such as Yandex and Alibaba.”
Another long-term measure Russian firms might take is switching to Linux-based operating systems and relying increasingly on Kaspersky – itself fast becoming a pariah in the West for its refusal to condemn Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Mirroring Bailey’s concerns regarding the global supply chain for digital goods, Nil added: “Hardware is a more serious problem – there’s already a shortage of chips and no existing infrastructure for manufacturing in Russia.
“This could increase the shift to cloud-based solutions. Regarding Cisco and telecom providers pulling out, there will be problems with firmware updates and extending networks on enterprises.
“We will probably see an increase in the use of virtual private networks, proxy servers, and [open-source network] Tor solutions to bypass regional software restrictions. Russia will also probably move to local hosting for websites and servers.”
Expect more pain
This trend would also be followed by cybercriminals, with a likely “rise in threat actors using crypto miners and phishing to steal money.” He added: “Expect both more exploitation and to see servers being used as tunnels or crypto miners. The big question is whether the companies will also stop security updates.”
“When we're at war, we're all in it together and everyone suffers to some degree,” said Bailey, warning against complacency at home over the tech sanctions levied against Russia. “People in the West shouldn't say, 'oh, that's happening over there'. There is no 'over there' when it comes to cyber.”
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