Russian hackers infiltrated Ukraine telecoms giant Kyivstar in ‘big warning’ to West

A Russian hacking of a Ukraine telco is a "big warning" to the West, Ukraine's cyber spy chief says.

A Russian hacking of a Ukraine telco is a "big warning" to the West, Ukraine's cyber spy chief says. Photo: Getty

Russian hackers were inside Ukrainian telecoms giant Kyivstar’s system from at least May 2023 in a cyber attack that should serve as a “big warning” to the West, Ukraine’s cyber spy chief says.

The hack, one of the most dramatic since Russia’s full-scale invasion almost two years ago, knocked out services provided by Ukraine’s biggest telecoms operator for some 24 million users for days from December 12.

In an interview, Illia Vitiuk, head of the Security Service of Ukraine’s (SBU) cyber security department, disclosed exclusive details about the hack, which he said caused “disastrous” destruction and aimed to land a psychological blow and gather intelligence.

“This attack is a big message, a big warning, not only to Ukraine but for the whole Western world to understand that no one is actually untouchable,” he said.

He noted Kyivstar was a wealthy, private company that invested a lot in cyber security.

The attack wiped “almost everything”, including thousands of virtual servers and PCs, he said, describing it as probably the first example of a destructive cyber attack that “completely destroyed the core of a telecoms operator”.

During its investigation, the SBU found the hackers probably attempted to penetrate Kyivstar in March or earlier, he said in a Zoom interview on December 27.

“For now, we can say securely, that they were in the system at least since May 2023,” he said.

“I cannot say right now, since what time they had … full access – probably at least since November.”

The SBU assessed the hackers would have been able to steal personal information, understand the locations of phones, intercept SMS messages and perhaps steal Telegram accounts with the level of access they gained, he said.

A Kyivstar spokesperson said the company was working closely with the SBU to investigate the attack and would take all necessary steps to eliminate future risks, adding: “No facts of leakage of personal and subscriber data have been revealed.”

Vitiuk said the SBU helped Kyivstar restore its systems within days and repel new cyber attacks.

“After the major break there were a number of new attempts aimed at dealing more damage to the operator,” he said.

Kyivstar is the biggest of Ukraine’s three main telecoms operators and there are some 1.1 million Ukrainians who live in small towns and villages where there are no other providers, Vitiuk said.

He said the attack had no big impact on Ukraine’s military, which did not rely on telecoms operators and made use of what he described as “different algorithms and protocols”.

Vitiuk said he was “pretty sure” the attack was carried out by Sandworm, a Russian military intelligence cyber warfare unit that has been linked to cyber attacks in Ukraine and elsewhere.

Russia’s defence ministry did not respond to a written request for comment on Vitiuk’s remarks.

The SBU thwarted, Vitiuk said, more than 4500 major cyber attacks on Ukrainian governmental bodies and critical infrastructure last year

A group called Solntsepyok, believed by the SBU to be affiliated with Sandworm, said it was responsible for the attack.

Samples of that malware have been recovered and are being analysed.

Kyivstar CEO Oleksandr Komarov said on December 20 that all the company’s services had been fully restored throughout the country.

Vitiuk praised the SBU’s incident response effort to safely restore the systems.

Why the hackers chose December 12 was unclear, he said, adding: “Maybe some colonel wanted to become a general.”

-Reuters, with AP

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