Ukraine’s agricultural sector set to attract cyberattacks, experts warn –

As Russia’s aggression has laid bare the critical role of Ukrainian agricultural production in the global food supply chain, cyberattacks are likely to follow, cybersecurity experts say.

The invasion, which began on February 24, had dramatic consequences for food security. Given the major role played by Ukraine and Russia in the global agri-food trade, the war has led to rising food prices, with the risk of famine in the countries of the South. Controlling the passage of cargo ships through Ukrainian ports quickly became a source of political pressure for the Russians.

However, further disruptions to Ukrainian agricultural production may still be ahead. Due to the ongoing conflict exposing the magnitude of the ripple effects of these disruptions, the sector is attracting the attention of cyber threat actors, Cisco’s Talos Intelligence Group warned.

According to the tech company, agricultural production is particularly vulnerable to cyber attacks due to its weak cyber defenses, international dependencies and limited tolerance for downtime. The last element is particularly relevant for ransomware attacks, where hackers seize an asset and only return it in exchange for a ransom.

The time pressure and sensitivity of compromised assets are weaponized to put pressure on the organization to pay the ransom and as such, malicious actors typically target critical infrastructure such as hospitals and oil pipelines, at particularly vulnerable times: Attacks on health systems have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The same is likely to happen with agriculture as the food crisis develops. Ukraine alone accounts for 10% of world agricultural production.

“Fragility creates opportunity,” Joe Marshall, senior security strategist at Cisco, told EURACTIV. Marshall pointed out that although there has not yet been a vertical attack on the agricultural sector in itselfagriculture suffered from spillovers from related sectors.

Last April, the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued an alert pointing out that hackers have actively targeted agribusinesses during harvesting and planting seasons, extremely time-consuming periods as even a few days of disruption can result in a massive loss in terms of agricultural production.

As the agricultural sector becomes increasingly digitized, production and associated logistics could be vulnerable to a cyberattack, as most of the wheat produced in Ukraine is exported. Yet Kyiv has demonstrated significant cyber resilience since the start of the war.

“The Ukrainian Internet network is quite robust, so an attack must be very well prepared to succeed – something that could take months to a year to develop. Unless an attack is in the works for a while, we may not see a major disruption anytime soon,” said CyEn co-founder Iva Tasheva.

However, while the country has significantly improved its cybersecurity posture in recent years, Marshall notes that its agriculture is already under extreme strain. Therefore, even minor actions can have significant consequences. For Marshall, the first step is to recognize the risk, which must then be assessed.

“The war in Ukraine has been a tremendous job from the perspective of the international community in terms of cyber threat intelligence sharing. From an agricultural perspective, I think there are opportunities for additional collaboration,” Mashall added.

A representative of the Ukrainian government was not immediately available for comment.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

Lana T. Arthur