Department of Defense leader tells KU crowd that ‘Russia has largely declared war on the West’ | News, Sports, Jobs | #malware | #ransomware

photo by: Chad Lawhorn

Trent Maul, director of analysis for the Defense Intelligence Agency, speaks at the University of Kansas on Thursday, April 7, 2022.

While the eyes of the world are on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a top Defense Department official told a KU crowd Thursday that Americans need to understand they are in a conflict too.

“Russia has largely declared war on the West,” Trent Maul, director of analysis for the Defense Intelligence Agency, told a KU conference on Russian threats to America and democracy.

And Maul — a KU graduate who is now tasked with keeping an eye on militaries around the world — said it could be a long war that isn’t always easily defined. Why? Because cyberspace has now become the “fifth domain of military conflict,” joining, land, sea, air and space.

The tactics of cyber warfare — everything from the simple spreading of disinformation to more advanced denial of service attacks on a website to sophisticated ransomware schemes that shut down critical pieces of infrastructure — make it difficult for the public to actually ascertain when they are at war, Maul said.

“It blurs the distinction between periods of peace and war in a manner that I don’t think we have seen in humankind,” Maul told the conference at the Burge Union.

While the type of conflict between Russia and the U.S. is much different than what is happening in Ukraine, the site of the bloodiest European conflict since World War II, Maul said the back-and-forth between the U.S. and Russia is significant. Often, though, it just doesn’t attract the attention of the public.

“Russian bombers going into our airspace, now, that makes the nightly news,” Maul said. “But the cyber equivalent of bombers, fighters, intelligence collection aircraft, they are traversing our skies daily. Sometimes we intercept. Sometimes we don’t.”

What those “cyber bombers” look like can vary. Sometimes it is a piece of code inserted into a computer network of a big multinational company or a utility or some other large organization. But other times it happens at a much more daily-life level, Maul said.

“They employ a troll army of hundreds, if not thousands, of bloggers that flood internet forums, social networks and comment sections of Western media to spread their information,” Maul said of the Russian government and quasi-government actors.

So far, most of the cyber warfare hasn’t much caught the public’s attention, with a few exceptions, like last spring’s Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack that caused a spike in gasoline prices in some parts of the country.

There’s no guarantee, though, that the attacks won’t escalate in size and seriousness, Maul said.

“We haven’t suffered a cyber Pearl Harbor yet, but we are on alert for just such an attack, and readying our response options in kind,” Maul said.

KU’s Center for Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies partnered with KU’s Office of Graduate Military Programs and the Intelligence Community Center for Academic Excellence to host the conference, which concluded Thursday afternoon.

Chancellor Douglas Girod, who attended parts of the conference, said working with the national intelligence and homeland security industries is a point of emphasis for KU’s research activities in the coming years.

“Working with our research leaders, there are five areas we are focusing our efforts to continue to grow and expand our research,” Girod said. “Safety and security is one of those, and this obviously falls squarely into it. We have some superb talent here in this field, but also have tremendous opportunity for growth here. It is an area of focus for us.”

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