1. News
June 17, 2021

Critical cyber targets: You can’t touch this (again), Biden tells Putin

By Robert Scammell

US President Joe Biden has given Russian President Vladimir Putin a list of 16 critical infrastructure sectors that are “off-limits” from cyberattacks – despite Russia carrying out attacks against some of those sectors in recent months.

The two met in Geneva, Switzerland, for their first summit since Biden became commander-in-chief for a closed-door, “eye-to-eye” talk that lasted about two hours. Along with Ukraine and human rights, cybersecurity was high on the agenda following a spate of high-profile attacks that have been linked to Russia.

“I talked about the proposition that certain critical infrastructure should be off-limits to attack – period – by cyber or any other means,” Biden told media at the summit. “I gave him a list […] of 16 specific entities, 16 defined as critical infrastructure from the energy sector to our water systems.”

Tom Kellermann, a member of the US Secret Service’s Cybersecurity Investigations Board, told ZDNet that Biden was referring to 16 critical infrastructure sectors as defined by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA).

Sectors included on the list include energy, food and agriculture, government facilities and information technology.

Since Biden won the election in November these sectors have all been hit during large-scale cyberattacks that have ties to Russian hacking groups.

In December the attack on IT vendor SolarWinds saw roughly 18,000 entities download a malicious update that made it possible to launch further cyberattacks. Among the victims were US government agencies such as the Treasury and Commerce departments.

US security agencies formally identified Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) actors as the culprits behind the SolarWinds hack.

In the last month ransomware gangs believed to be based in Russia launched cyberattacks against Colonial Pipeline that led to fuel shortages, and meat processor JBS.

Biden referenced the Colonial Pipeline attack to Putin during their talks. Biden said he looked at Putin and said: “How would you feel if ransomware took on the pipelines from your oil fields?”

According to Biden, Putin replied: “It would matter.”

All of the 16 critical infrastructure sectors have suffered cyberattacks in recent years, with attacks often linked to hacking groups operating in Russia.

Putin responded by suggesting most of the world’s attacks come from the US and other countries. Russia has previously denied involvement in cyberattacks it has been linked to.

Putin told a press conference in Geneva that Russia had “provided exhaustive information” to the US on cyberattacks it is accused of having involvement in.

Biden said he also pointed out to Putin that the US has “significant” cyber capability.

The two sides agreed to set up a working group to establish cybersecurity red lines to promote stability in cyberspace.

“We agreed to task experts in both our countries to work on specific understandings about what’s off-limits and to follow up on specific cases that originate in other countries or either of our countries,” said Biden.

However, Brooks Wallace, VP EMEA at cybersecurity company Deep Instinct, cast doubt on whether the agreement would lead to concrete results.

“Unless there is a major accord between the two countries that sees attackers pursued and closed down aggressively, I wouldn’t expect to see any changes,” Wallace said. “There is simply too much at stake and too much to be gained for either side to volunteer to lay down their ‘cyber arms”.

Biden said that Russia agreed in principle but added: “Principle is one thing, it has to be backed up by practice”.

Putin told reporters that both countries believe “cyberspace is extraordinarily important”.

When asked if he could trust Putin, Biden responded: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating. We’re going to know shortly.”