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Russia sees ‘full-scale cyberwar’ as bomb-threat wave continues

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Yandex CEO Arkady Volozh visit the Yandex headquarters in Moscow's Lva Tolstogo Street on Sept. 21, 2017. Russia has been experiencing a surge in fake bomb threats. (Metzel Mikhail/TASS/Zuma Press/TNS)

MOSCOW — A wave of fake bomb threats across Russia has entered its second week in what a senior lawmaker called a “full-scale cyberwar” against the country that authorities are ill-equipped to fight.

About 400,000 people have been evacuated from more than 1,000 shopping malls, airports, and government and other buildings around the country since the surge in hoaxes began last week, according to the official Tass news agency. RIA Novosti said more than 100,000 people were affected on Monday alone. The calls are coming from outside Russia using the Internet, making them difficult to trace, officials said.

“It’s a full-scale cyberwar using telephone terrorism,” said Frants Klintsevich, deputy head of the Defense Committee in the upper house of parliament, said in a telephone interview. “We will respond.”

Among the latest targets: a Stalin-era bomb shelter near Moscow’s Garden Ring road, now a Cold War museum, along with several shopping malls and government offices, according to the state-run Tass news service. The headquarters of Internet company Yandex NV was targeted just hours after a visit by President Vladimir Putin, according to an unnamed security source cited by the official Tass news agency. The company later said a fire alarm had been triggered.

Altogether Thursday, more than 15,000 people in eight cities were evacuated because of hoaxes, RIA reported, citing an unnamed security official.

“No other country in the world has experienced something like this. It’s an extraordinarily dangerous situation,” said Nikolai Kovalyov, a member of the lower house of parliament and former head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor to the Soviet KGB. “It all started as a hacking attack via Internet-telephony and now ordinary crazies have joined the wave.”

The FSB told other security agencies last week not to comment publicly on the hoaxes in order to reduce the risk of panic, the Vedomosti newspaper reported. There was no answer at the FSB press office in Moscow.

But Vladimir Puchkov, minister of Emergency Situations, said Wednesday the continuing threats were “a major problem,” RIA reported. He rejected speculation they were part of a drill organized by authorities.

So far, all of the hundreds of threats have turned out to be fake. Losses from the evacuations have reached at least 300 million rubles ($5.2 million) in the past week, according to the RBC newspaper.

No one has publicly claimed responsibility for the hoaxes. Officials have given conflicting accounts of who they suspect is behind them, ranging from Islamic State to security services in Ukraine, which has accused Russia of mounting cyber attacks on its power grid and other systems. Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko denied his country played any role, saying the Kremlin was seeking to turn Russia’s population against its neighbor.

“This has been an attack unprecedented by its size and unique for Russia,” said Sergey Nikitin, an expert in Moscow-based cybersecurity firm Group-IB. Hackers may use a chain of servers located in different jurisdictions — that may have conflicts with each other and don’t exchange information — to make a call, according to Nikitin. This, in addition to possible use of voice-modulation software and Google translate, make them impossible to trace, he said.

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(With assistance from Volodymyr Verbyany)

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© 2017 Bloomberg News

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