Ep. 84: Russia, cybercrime, and the future of war, with Rik Ferguson.

Watch our interview with Rik Ferguson on Youtube.

Rik Ferguson is vice president of security research at Trend Micro and is actively engaged in studying online threats and the underground economy. He also researches the wider implications of new developments in the Information Technology arena and their impact on security.


Top Questions

What's the update on refugees from Ukraine? 

In Poland, where Rik is living, there are a very large number of refugees which have been displaced by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Rik and others like him are working to provide temporary shelter for these refugees while they work on finding longer-term accommodations. 

Why has there been so little cyberwarfare from Russia?

There are four potential explanations:

  • Russia just didn't expect the war to drag on, and they didn't make enough preparations beforehand to sustain an ongoing campaign of cyberwarfare.
  • Putin has become so paranoid that he didn't share his high-level plans with very many people. As before, this meant there wasn't any preparation for cyberwarfare. 
  • The Russian army has begun taking a much more destructive approach, making cyberwarfare a less important component. There's no reason to hack infrastructure if you're just going to bomb it anyway. 
  • What we think of as 'Russian cybercrime' is actually a diverse group of actors, including the Russian state itself, hacking groups which are state-affiliated, and other groups which are based in Russia but have no connection to the government. The Russian government itself is mostly skilled at disinformation and propaganda, not directly attacking infrastructure, so their ability to wage cyberwarfare isn't as great as is typically assumed. 

What role will crypto and blockchain play in warfare?

In this particular conflict, probably not that much. Because sanctions were so swift and so severe, the Russian government likely didn't have time to make preparations to funnel their money through cryptocurrencies, and though a hefty $100 million was donated to the Ukrainian war effort via Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Polka, that's a fairly small sum next to the billions sent through conventional means. 

Still, there's every reason to believe that as this technology becomes more stable, more pervasive, and better understood, both The Empire and The Rebel Alliance will find uses for it in the arena of war. 

What is the future of warfare?

As has been the case for centuries, warfare is going to be impacted by dramatically changing technology. Not only will weapons of war become far larger in their scale -- bigger bombs, bigger guns, etc. -- but they will also become far more intelligent and precise. We will someday soon see genetically-engineered viruses which can target particular ethnic groups or carriers of specific genes, drones that are fully autonomous (no human pilots) and aimed squarely at particular individuals, and cyberattacks which could destroy critical infrastructure.

Rik is most concerned about something far more subtle -- information ops. Though much was made out of Russian influence in the 2016 U.S. election, the truth is that a good campaign of subversion and persuasion should be all but undetectable. Between advances in natural language processing, data analytics, deepfakes, and related technologies, we could find ourselves in a situation in which it is almost impossible to tell the truth from misinformation. We are not ready to face this threat, and we should begin thinking seriously about this now. 

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