The development of the telecommunications infrastructure in Central Asia has increased the online presence of the region dramatically. It has also exposed cybercrime weaknesses. Unfortunately, there has been little education and development of regional expertise around the dangers of information technology. Central Asia as a whole is now facing a growing threat from attacks by cyber-criminal gangs.
2018 digital use in Central Asia
Responding to this increasing threat governments in the region have made it a priority to protect their countries online data. In a September 2017 speech to the Kazakh Majlis President Nursultan Nazarbaev stated,
“In the last three years alone, the volume of illegal online content has increased 40-fold. This means that we need a reliable cyber-shield for Kazakhstan. We cannot put off the creation of [this shield], we must protect the interests of our country, our culture and our values,”
Currently, only Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have made significant inroads into this arena. All three have engaged in the development of comprehensive legal and regulatory frameworks for cybersecurity. Moreover, they have established and adopted “kontseptsiya” or concept papers for the creation of national cybersecurity strategies’. One example of this being the successful Kazakhstan Cyber Shield. They have also formed Computer Emergency Response Teams or CERTs (CERT-KZ, UZ-CERT, CERT.KG. ).
Additionally, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have created dedicated cyber programs at national universities with the intention of training information and cyber experts on domestic CERT agencies. Both governments are now capable of repelling the majority of daily cyber attacks that occur. As Ruslan Abdikalikov, Deputy Chairman of the Committee for Information Security of the Ministry of Defence and Aerospace Industry of Kazakhstan stated at the 2018 SOC-FORUM conference,
“Cyber attacks are fixed every second and their number is growing. We fixed 1 billion of such attacks in 2016. There were 20bn attacks on Kazakhstan last year, on the state information structures. Nobody knows how many attacks business faces. The attacks on the Government increased by 20 times over the past year […] but we protect ourselves from them.”
Cybercrime and Hackmail
Central Asia currently has one of the highest global rates of cyber-criminal activities. This comes despite efforts improving the region’s capacity to deal with cyber attacks or cyber terrorism. Kazakhstan, thanks to its attractive financial situation and high number of internet users, has faced significant issues with cybercrime. Statistics indicate that it has had the highest rate of cyber infiltration in Central Asia since 2010. At the same time, 85% of internet users have been compromised. In the past year alone, the Kazakh National Security Committee (KNB) announced that 63,000 attacks have occurred. This shows an increase of 38,000 since 2017.
Zeroing in on Kazakhstan’s financial sector, cyber-criminals have not just hacked accounts, but also bank machines and payment terminals. The lion’s share of the attacks has consisted of viruses and phishing attacks. These compromise devices to either generate spam or participate in Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks. Cyber-criminals have also used compromised machines to launch DDoS attacks. These typically demand that the victim pay a ransom for the attack to stop.
A prime example was Kazakhstan’s Alfa-Bank in 2017. According to Alfa-Bank IT specialist Yevgeny Nozikov, the hackers sought their reward in the form of a ransom. The bank had to pay a sum, in exchange for the hackers to unblock the IT systems. In another case of cyber extortion in March 2012, the owner of a Kyrgyz entertainment website suffered several days of DDoS attacks. A hacker sent a blackmail message warning that the attacks would continue if the owner chose not to pay.
Kyrgyzstan’s 24.kg news agency also noted that the country experiences high amounts of commercial cyber attacks. According to sources, 776 websites belonging to various commercial companies, individuals and government agencies had been hacked in 2017.
What experts say
On average, 20 websites are successfully hacked every five days in the country, while every tenth website is hacked repeatedly. Government officials and cyber-experts throughout Central Asia argue that this is due to the lack of awareness of cybersecurity in the general public.
This point was reiterated by the Kaspersky Lab Cybersecurity Index. The Index demonstrates that in countries like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, many users not particularly concerned about the need for any protective cyber measures. As Laziz Buranov, a department head from Uzbekistan’s Information Security Centre (TsOIB), explained to Caravansei,
“Last year, 493 .uz domain sites were subjected to hacker attacks. They were hacked for various reasons. In the majority of cases, the site owners themselves were at fault — they […] used infected and vulnerable software.”
According to Kaspersky Labs many private users and businesses in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan even utilise pirated software such as unprotected copies of old Windows operating systems for their online activities. Thereby placing at risk all online activities, thanks to the lack of information technology expertise and cybersecurity in the public domain. This lack of expertise means that Central Asia as a whole is extremely attractive to cyber-criminals gangs who view these weaknesses as an invitation to stay.
Is Central Asia a CyberCrime Haven?
In Kazakhstan during the past two years, the criminal cyber gang Cobalt has established itself thanks to the lack of cybersecurity. According to Arman Abdrasilov, Director at TsARKA, the Astana-based Center for Cyberattack Analysis and Research, Kazakh security experts have seen a rise in the number of domestic computers being hijacked by Cobalt malware. They point to the use of hacked Kazakh servers in the 2016 attack on the Bangladesh Bank. The attack resulted in $81 million worth of loss. This evidence demonstrates the criminal gang has set up shop in Central Asia.
Emerging in 2013, Cobalt is “One of the world’s most dangerous hacker groups […] which specializes in hacking into bank accounts,” stated Abdrasilov. The group first targetedRussian banks with phishing emails. These emails contained programmes that would enable them to gain access to password-protected archives. In turn, this gave them remote access to ATMs, which would then deliver cash to waiting accomplices. Since 2017, the group has branched out from Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia to Europe and North America. According to Europol, Cobalt has attacked banks in 40 countries and caused losses of more than $1.1 billion.
In Central Asia, cybercrime poses a significant risk to banking and financial institutions. Lack of knowledge, expertise and protective procedural training among employees make them vulnerable to attacks like those mentioned above. Authorities are yet to get a handle on dealing with these crimes. Governments are struggling to respond to the attacks. In Kazakhstan, for example, only 3% of online crimes are ever prosecuted.
Risks are Significant
Like a dog chasing its own tail, Central Asian governments are at something of an impasse with their cyber-readiness. While rapidly trying to catch up to the fast-paced global cyber environment, governments have focused heavily on the state IT infrastructure. They have not allocated enough time to educate or develop IT and cyber-knowledge in the general population. While the state apparatus is cyber-ready, the general public is still vulnerable to cybercrimes.
To redress this issue, the governments of the region should look beyond their borders for expertise in developing nation-wide cybersecurity information awareness programmes and domestic information technology specialists. Allies like Russia and China could provide these, as both are regarded at the forefront of cybersecurity. However, engaging help from their usual partner states is also fraught with danger in the current international climate. Both China and Russia are in an expansionist phase. They are utilising any opportunity that may arise to help them advance their own foreign agenda, as illustrated in Ukraine and the South China Sea. This leaves Central Asian countries little option but to develop domestic expertise from other sources, like America and India.
The problem here is that it will take time to develop expertise on a domestic level. Training information technology specialist and cybersecurity experts is an intensive task. Countries like Uzbekistan are now seeking to redress this issue and are implementing programs to right this crucial flaw in their cyber-readiness. It will be several years before these students are cyber-ready. Countries like Kazakhstan, though, are still attracting cyber-criminals at an increasing pace due to the lack of general cybersecurity infrastructure and knowledge at a grassroots level.
Once established, it can be difficult to remove cyber-criminal gangs without allocating significant resources to the task. These are resources the region does not yet possess. While many Central Asian governments are trying to fast track their cyber-readiness, the rapid evolution of malware and cyber threats means they are currently well behind in meeting this threat and will be for the foreseeable future.