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Investigation Offers New Glimpse Into Russian Military’s Hacking, Recruitment Efforts

  • RFE/RL

The captions asks those who have “successfully graduated from college” and are experts in "technical science" to apply to join a new entity called the Research Squadron of the Russian Federation.

The captions asks those who have “successfully graduated from college” and are experts in "technical science" to apply to join a new entity called the Research Squadron of the Russian Federation.

The video, which appeared on the Russian social-media network VKontakte, opens with a computer-animated image of a man’s gloved hands loading a rifle, then typing on a computer keyboard.

As a heavy-metal rock guitar starts, the captions asks those who have “successfully graduated from college” and are experts in "technical science" to apply to join a new entity called the Research Squadron of the Russian Federation.

The minute-long clip (below), first published on the social network in July 2015, was part of the Russian government’s effort to train a new corps of state-backed cyberwarriors, according to a new report by the news website Meduza.

Meduza identified the video as part of its investigation, published November 7, into Russia’s cybercapabilities, offering new insights into Moscow’s burgeoning efforts to develop more cyberweapons and surveillance tools.

The report comes as cyberwarfare and espionage have taken a marquee role in the U.S. presidential campaign. The U.S. intelligence community has accused Moscow directly of hacking the servers of the U.S. Democratic Party and other political organizations earlier this year.

According to Meduza, a Russian-language website based in Latvia, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu began pushing sometime around early 2013 for a formal recruiting process to identify hackers who would work for the government, something along the lines of the U.S. Cyber Command.

"We are beginning the 'big hunt' for programmers. It's a hunt in the positive sense of the word; this need is dictated by the volume of programming software that the army will require in the next five years," Shoigu was quoted as telling university rectors and other officials in July 2013.

In early 2014, the ministry created the Center of Special Studies and used websites of technical and engineering universities -- as well as Russian headhunting websites -- to openly recruit. Monthly salaries up to 120,000 rubles (about $3,400 at the time) were offered, Meduza said, and employees were also offered high-level security clearances.

The recruitment effort not only targeted promising computer-science students but also tapped established hackers who may have committed cybercrimes and thus could be coerced into joining the Research Squadron, Meduza said.

The Defense Ministry is not the only Russian government entity building or expanding its cyberabilities in recent years. Two of the country’s lead intelligence agencies, the FSB and the GRU, have long had what many experts believe to be formidable hacking divisions, some of which have been tied by U.S. cybersecurity experts to the Democratic party hack.

Previous cyberattacks on Estonian and Georgian government websites going back as far as 2007 and 2008 have been well documented and linked back to Russia, underscoring how long similar efforts had been under way, according to Alexander Gostev, an expert at Kaspersky Lab, the Moscow-based cybersecurity company.

"To assume that Russia hadn't gotten involved in the problem of its absence from cyberspace prior to 2014 is rather naive," Gostev was quoted as telling Meduza.

"It’s likely that for such work, they needed additional input from the outside, and that's why they chose the format of a 'Research Squadron,'" he said.

Meduza also examined the efforts by a state-funded, Moscow-region research institute that has been headed by a former FSB agent since 2008 to acquire other cybertools from private companies.

Public records uncovered by Meduza found that the institute, known as the Kvant Research Institute, paid an Italian company known as Hacking Team nearly $500,000 between 2012 and 2014 to purchase software that can remotely take over cell phones and computers.

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