On May 20, two pro-Moscow hacker groups, Killnet and Legion, launched a coordinated cyberattack on thousands of Italian websites. Targets included major transportation hubs and key government agencies such as the State and Defense Departments.
Later that month, Killnet threatened an “irreparable blow” to Italy.
The big question is why? Russia has certainly increased the pace of its cyber attacks since invading Ukraine. In the early days of the war, the Kiev government relentlessly hammered it with cyberattacks.
Other nations have also experienced malicious attacks, but why focus on Italy? Although Rome has condemned the invasion and supports Ukraine’s self-defense efforts, it is nowhere near the top of the list of nations supporting Kyiv.
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Maybe the Russians thought Italy was a soft target for their hacker army. If that’s the case, you’re very wrong. Rome’s newly formed National Cybersecurity Agency mounted a robust response and successfully repelled the worst Russian attacks.
Founded in August 2021, the agency includes the Computer Security Incident Response Team. Around the same time as the Russian hackers were preparing their Italian offensive, the agency released a forward-looking national cybersecurity strategy calling for the adoption of 82 measures by 2026. A significant part of the strategy is dedicated specifically to protecting against and responding to cyber attacks.
Cyberwarfare is fundamentally different from conventional warfare. It is not a war to be won; it is a condition that must be endured. A system can be invulnerable one day and easy prey the next. All it takes is a computer virus or a successful phishing attack.
China and Russia understand this. They have invested heavily in cyberwarfare because they appreciate its potential to be a real game changer in the ongoing competition with the free world.
make no mistake Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping want (to use the bluntly honest vocabulary of Nikita Khrushchev) to “bury” the free world. They would prefer a world without America, a world where Europe is weak, disorganized and distracted and most other regions exist as the supportive suburbs of Beijing and Moscow.
In their struggle against liberty, they employ many tried-and-true weapons: military, economic, and diplomatic. But cyber is an important part of their arsenals. It allows them to engage in economic heists – such as intellectual property theft and outright theft – as well as meddling in their opponents’ infrastructure and military operations.
Of all areas of cooperation between free nations, cyber action should be high on the agenda, and not just between national governments. The private sector, communities, law enforcement, the political community, academia, and states and provinces all have roles to play.
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There is some international connectivity, but there could and should be more. As many countries work to break down internal institutional barriers to create a more resilient cyber environment, there is also an opportunity for multilateral work.
The opportunities for fruitful cooperation go beyond traditional NATO allies like Italy. For example, the US and India can develop effective cyber tools to counter China’s aggression through cyber threats and digital authoritarianism. Cyber executives in Romania and Estonia, working through EU and NATO centers respectively, should consider sharing information and cyber relationships with like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific such as South Korea (a nation recently admitted to NATO’s cyber collaboration ) build up.
Always seeking asymmetric advantages over the free world, autocrats and despots will continue to rely heavily on cyber warfare, espionage, and information operations. Cooperative efforts among free nations and free peoples can build the connecting cyber fabric, interoperability, and resilient critical infrastructure needed to sustain effective global, multi-layered cyber defenses.