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Hunting Russian hackers: Meet the Canadian on the frontlines of a cyberwar

The United States charged seven Russian intelligence officers last week for allegedly targeting anti-doping agencies based in Canada. It’s the latest in a flurry of high-profile cyber-attacks blamed on Russian hackers. Jeff Semple reports from Moscow on how Canadians are being targeted.

Nicholas Palmer’s day job is hunting Russian hackers.

Originally from Nova Scotia, Palmer is now the director of international business at GroupIB, a private cyber-security firm based in Moscow. Palmer has spent his career preventing and responding to cyber-attacks on internet users and businesses around the world, but he says cyber-criminals from Russia represent his greatest challenge.

“We’ve seen them very easily enter banks’ networks and conduct very highly-skilled attacks against theoretically well-protected networks,” Palmer said, pointing to a fake Royal Bank of Canada website targeting Canadian customers.

READ MORE: Canada joins chorus outing Russia over repeated cyber attacks as US charges 7 spies with hacking

“Unfortunately, we detect thousands of these (phishing websites) that are hosted in Russia. Russian-speaking cyber-criminals are a very talented group of people.”

Russians’ tech-savvy cyber-skills are rooted in history. The country boasts an impressive track-record of technological innovation and has prioritized education in the fields of math and engineering for decades. But after the Soviet economy collapsed, unemployment soared and jobs for workers with technical skills were in short supply.

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A screenshot of a fake RBC “phishing site,” similar to those allegedly used by Russian hackers.
A screenshot of a fake RBC “phishing site,” similar to those allegedly used by Russian hackers. Nicholas Palmer

“So, unfortunately, young individuals that have high programming skills with no job opportunities may choose the path of quick success for dollars,” Palmer said.

Alexandr Varskoy is a former Russian hacker, who grew up during Russia’s gruelling economic transition in the 1990s. “Computers offered a kind of freedom in those hard times,” he said, explaining that he used to hack companies’ data for fun. “When you’re 15, it’s cool to hack into Microsoft or Vodafone and say ‘hi’ using your codename. At first, it was just to prove yourself to your friends in the hacking scene. But then the Internet became a marketplace. And later the political games started and the cyber-world entered a dangerous time.”

READ MORE: Hundreds of countries, not just China and Russia, pose threat to Canada, new cyber chief warns

A flurry of recent high-profile cyber-attacks has been blamed on Russians, including the hacking of anti-doping agencies based in Canada and the attack on the U.S. Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. The U.S. Department of Justice has accused Russia’s intelligence agency, the G.R.U., in both attacks.

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“It’s unclear how much of it was actually perpetrated by the Russian government and on whose orders,” said Anton Fedyashin, a Russian history expert at American University in Washington, D.C. “But then again, to be surprised at foreign governments collecting information on their opponents or their partners, even through cyber-penetration, is really to be sort of ignorant of how the contemporary world works.”

WATCH: Russia accused of cyberattacks in Canada and around the world

Russia accused of cyberattacks in Canada and around the world
Russia accused of cyberattacks in Canada and around the world

Varskoy says the threat posed by Russian hackers is overblown and that Russia’s “golden age” in cyberspace is over.

Alexandr Varskoy is a former Russian hacker, who grew up during Russia’s gruelling economic transition in the 1990s.
Alexandr Varskoy is a former Russian hacker, who grew up during Russia’s gruelling economic transition in the 1990s. Jeff Semple

“American hackers, Russian hackers, German hackers are on the same level,” he said. “Germany is the top country in the world in terms of servers and hardware. You have to count the hardware, not the people.

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“Cyber-warfare is about hardware, not ‘Snowdens’ or ‘Assanges.’”

READ MORE: What is the Russian military agency GRU, accused of nefarious crimes around the world?

And unlike the difficult post-Soviet years, tech-savvy Russians now have plenty of career paths to choose from. Russia’s unemployment rate is at its lowest level in years and the country now has a shortage of IT specialists. Palmer’s cyber-security company works with local schools and universities to recruit and educate Russian youth, “to show them that there’s a lot of really cool opportunities within the cyber-security space to use your skills for good,” he said.

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