Note: This blog is part of a series of articles related to the use of Structured Analytic Techniques in Cyber Threat Intelligence (CTI). Previous examples include our Analysis of Competing Hypotheses (ACH) for REvil, a Cone of Plausibility exercise for ransomware development, and a Team A vs Team B exercise to study Lapsus$.
Last week, the Photon Intelligence Team sat down in the same (virtual) room to conduct an analytical exercise on the future of pro-Russian hacktivist groups beyond the current Russia-Ukraine war. To drive this assessment, we’ve used a forecasting structured analytic technique (SAT) known as ‘alternative future analysis’ (AFA).
Thinking about the potential future of these hacktivist groups is important given the growing role of these groups since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war in February 2022.
Over the past few months, these groups conducted high-profile disruptive and destructive cyber attacks, by crowdsourcing capabilities and organizing thousands of individuals with similar motivations. Right now, groups like KillNet maintain an impressive organizational infrastructure. Subgroups of Killnet with different resources and skills are able to flexibly attack targets communicated via an overall command chain put in place.
Given the prominent role gained by some of these threat groups supporting Russian objectives, the question driving our exercise was: What will happen to these groups once the current war is over? Will they retire or will they move to new targets?
In order to answer these questions, we’ve devised an AFA exercise that would help us define the main drivers behind this phenomenon and brainstorm some of its potential developments. In the following sections, we’ll explain how we structured this workshop and offer an overview of the four scenarios identified. Let’s see together what we came up with.
Alternative Future Analysis: How Does it Work?
Alternative future analysis is a forecasting SAT, which is an exercise used to systemically externalize thought processes and assessments, so that they can be shared, expanded, and critiqued by other analysts.
AFAs in particular are imaginative intelligence forecasting exercises used to identify alternative trajectories by developing plausible—but mind-stretching—“stories” based on critical uncertainties to inform decisions-making strategies today. According to Richard Heuer, the father of SATs, the AFA technique has proven “highly effective in helping decision makers and policymakers contemplate multiple futures, challenge their assumptions, and anticipate surprise developments by identifying ‘unknown unknowns’.”
In order to conduct an AFA exercise, it is important to identify the two main drivers behind a certain phenomenon, based on the intelligence requirements set at the beginning of this workshop. In our case, we were interested in imagining the future of pro-Russian hacktivists beyond the Russia-Ukraine war, so we set two main drivers:
- The outcome of the Russia-Ukraine war;
- The state of the Russian economy after the war.
We then created a 2×2 matrix, labeling the two ends of the spectrum for each driver, thus forming a square divided into four quadrants. In our instance, the graph looked something like this:
Alternative Scenarios for pro-Russian Hacktivist Groups
Once we identified the four quadrants corresponding to our future scenarios, we brainstormed thoughts and ideas on how pro-Russian hacktivist groups would evolve in that context—and the implications of such developments in the threat landscape. The following paragraphs will briefly offer an overview of our assessment.
Scenario 1: A Russian victory
In the first scenario, we imagined a positive outcome for Moscow, where its economy is thriving and they claim to have met the objectives stated at the beginning of the so-called “special operation”. At this point, emboldened by the success obtained during the Russia-Ukraine war, the ‘veterans’ of pro-Russian hacktivist groups may keep operating to support other Russian operations on the international stage. Such operations could take the form of attacks against other Russian adversaries (NATO countries?), in the form of defacement attacks, distributed denial of service (DDoS) operations, and disinformation campaigns. Additionally, we deemed it unlikely that these groups would step down in this scenario, given the internal and external reputation that such groups have gained over the previous months.
Scenario 2: Ok, but at what cost?
In the second scenario, we envisioned a future where the Russian economy is in decline despite Moscow winning the Russia-Ukraine war. According to our judgment, pro-Russian hacktivists may proceed in two ways. Some members may likely decide to target with disruptive and destructive attacks Western countries deemed responsible for the sanction regimes impacting Moscow. On the other hand, other members may instead pick the cybercriminal route, in an attempt to illicitly gather funds to offset the rising costs of living in Russia. This scenario would then likely cause a rise in both state-encouraged hacktivism and financially-motivated attacks against Western organizations in the short-term (1-3 months).
Scenario 3: From NATO with love
Now let’s move to the scenarios where Russia leaves the battlefield defeated (whatever that defeat may look like). In the third scenario, the Russian economy is also deeply damaged by the costs of the war and the sanction regime imposed by Western countries. Now, what would the future of pro-Russian hacktivist groups look like in this situation? Based on our structured analysis, it is realistically possible that a fraction of such groups would steer their activity to more destructive activities against Western targets in retaliation for their current situation. An increase in the deployment of wiper malware would likely be the first evidence that we’d observe. Alternatively, other members may redirect their skills to financially-motivated cyber attacks or simply be discouraged from participating in further coordinated attacks.
Scenario 4: Disinformation time?
What would need to happen to see Russia losing the war, yet having a thriving economy? We’re not gonna lie, getting our heads around this scenario was fairly complicated. This future is quite unlikely hence the name ‘disinformation time’. Disinformation and misinformation campaigns would probably be dominating Moscow’s strategies in this instance, aiming to reframe the loss in a convenient way for Putin’s regime. It is then realistically possible that former hacktivist members would switch and support these activities, possibly by creating botnets to spread disinformation on social media platforms. Finally, we would expect further disruptive and destructive attacks against Ukrainian targets in retaliation for the humiliation of the defeat.
Be aware, the future is nowhere confined within these four quadrants. Pro-Russian hacktivist groups may take any number off future trajectories. The four scenarios illustrate only a fraction of what the future may actually hold for these threat groups. However, conducting these imaginative SATs is crucial for the minds of cyber threat intelligence analysts, to test their analytical judgment and to be prepared for what may happen ahead. Ultimately, Predicting the future is not what’s required to intelligence practitioners; instead, they need to be flexible and adaptable when observing the evidence available now and trace potential future developments.
The best way to protect yourself from the threat posed by pro-Russian hacktivist groups is to constantly monitor their preferred targets, their current resources, and their motivations. Adjusting your threat model, and the relative intelligence requirements driving your response to this war, is an excellent way to always stay one step ahead of any threat actor.