How Russia is recruiting elite hackers for its cyber war

Aleksandr B Vyarya thought his job was to defend people from cyber attacks until, he says, his government approached him with a request to do the opposite.
Vyarya (33) a bearded, bespectacled computer programmer who thwarted hackers, said he was suddenly being asked to join a sweeping overhaul of the Russian military last year.
Under a new doctrine, the nation’s generals were redefining war as more than a contest of steel and gunpowder, making cyber warfare a central tenet in expanding the Kremlin’s interests.
“Sorry, I can’t,” Vyarya said he told an executive at a Russian military contracting firm who had offered him the hacking job.
But Vyarya was worried about the consequences of his refusal, so he abruptly fled to Finland last year, he and his former employer said, in a rare example of a Russian who sought asylum in the face of the country’s efforts to recruit hackers.
“This is against my principles and illegal,” he said of the Russian military’s hacking efforts. While much about Russia’s cyber warfare program is shrouded in secrecy, details of the government’s effort to recruit programmers in recent years – whether professionals like Vyarya, college students, or even potential criminals – are shedding some light on the Kremlin’s plan to create elite teams of computer hackers.
US intelligence agencies say a team of Russian hackers stole data from the Democratic National Committee during the presidential campaign.
On Thursday, the Obama administration imposed sanctions against Russia for interfering in the election, the bedrock of the US political system.
Intelligence agencies
The sanctions take aim at Russia’s main intelligence agencies and specific individuals, striking at one part of a sprawling cyber espionage operation that also includes the military, military contractors and teams of recruited civilians.
For more than three years, rather than rely on military officers working out of isolated bunkers, Russian government recruiters have scouted a wide range of programmers, placing prominent ads on social media sites, offering jobs to college students and professional coders, and even speaking openly about scouting Russia’s criminal underworld for potential talent.
These recruits were intended to cycle through military contracting companies and newly formed units called “science squadrons,” established on military bases around the country. As early as 2013, Sergei Shoigu, the defence minister, told university rectors at a meeting in Moscow that he was on a “head hunt in the positive meaning of the word” for coders.
The Defense Ministry bought advertising on Vkontakte, Russia’s most popular social network. One video shows a man clanging a military rifle on a table beside a laptop computer, then starting to type.
“If you graduated from college, if you are a technical specialist, if you are ready to use your knowledge, we give you an opportunity,” the ad intoned. Members of the science squadrons, the video said, live in “comfortable accommodation,” shown as an apartment furnished with a washing machine.
University students subject to mandatory conscription in the nation’s armed forces, but who wanted to avoid brutal stints as enlistees, could opt instead to join a science squadron. A government questionnaire asks draftees about their knowledge of programming languages.
The ministry posted openings on job forums, according to an investigation by Meduza, a Russian news site based in Riga, Latvia, that first detailed the recruitment effort.
One post from 2014 advertised for a computer scientist with knowledge of “patches, vulnerabilities and exploits,” a term of art for software flaws.
Given the size of Russia’s cybercrime underworld, it was not long before the military considered recruiting those it delicately described as “hackers who have problems with the law.”
In an article titled “Enlisted Hacker” in Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the government newspaper, a deputy minister of defence, general Oleg Ostapenko, said the science squadrons might include hackers with criminal histories.


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