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Should Utahns worry about Russian cyberattacks? Here’s what an expert told us

Renee Bright

President Joe Biden warned companies that Russia could be planning cyberattacks against critical U.S. infrastructure and urged private companies to harden their cyber defenses. It’s not the first time the government has warned of cybersecurity threats. The difference now is the war in Ukraine. So what does this mean for Utahns and businesses in the state?

Everyone should be taking care of their digital hygiene, said Brandon Amacher, director of the Emerging Tech Policy Lab at Utah Valley University.

“Most of us have a Google account. Most of us utilize Microsoft Office products. Those are all targets that would be very appealing to the Russian government to go after. It's pretty daunting,” said the teacher of cybersecurity policy and cyberwarfare.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pamela McCall: Let’s start with what a cybersecurity attack could look like for the average person in Utah.

Brandon Amacher: Cyberattack is kind of a broad term, and it can range from something mildly disruptive to something highly destructive. And what I mean by that is you could see some websites going down, people having to take pauses from their work because a service that they utilize for their business is temporarily unavailable. Or it could range to an infrastructure attack, and you could see components of power grids being taken offline. You could see water treatment facilities and other critical infrastructure being directly attacked, depending on the scope.

PM: How concerned should we really be here in Utah?

BA: A lot of us will probably be thinking, 'Oh, you know, I don't work in an industry that's critical infrastructure.' But there is oftentimes a spillover effect. And we don't think of collateral damage when we think of cyber. But think about how many large services most of us utilize on a daily basis that would be an appealing target for a threat actor. Most of us have a Google account. Most of us utilize Microsoft Office products. Those are all targets that would be very appealing to the Russian government to go after. It's pretty daunting.

PM: What if the banking system is attacked, how should people prepare for that? Or do we need to?

BA: I would encourage people to be prepared for any eventuality, including emergency preparedness, having a little bit of cash on hand just to make sure that should financial institutions be attacked, that you're not completely high and dry, and likewise with water reserves. And then on the other end of it, making sure that you're taking care of your digital hygiene and having things backed up.

PM: How could cell phone service be impacted, and is it a time to get a landline? 

BA: It's definitely a possibility. Communications are also a high-value target for nation-state actors, and we've actually seen one of the things that Russia has done in Ukraine is targeted the satellite internet and satellite communications in that country, and that has spilled over into portions of Germany and Poland, and even France. You would hope that they're very secure, but that is definitely a possibility and people should be prepared.

PM: What about things like gas pumps and pipelines, infrastructure, in terms of shutting off the spigot? 

BA: Just last year, there was a cyberattack on an oil and gas pipeline on the East Coast, which led to some pretty serious supply chain shortages because that pipeline had to be taken offline. And imagining what something similar would look like now, with the current issues that we're having, with supply chain and already very high gas prices. That could be very significant.

PM: But what do you do? Do you get the jerry cans out and fill them up and keep them at the ready? How far should people go? 

BA: The best thing that you can do as an individual would just be to be prepared for any eventuality and have a backup plan. So you want to make sure that you understand, OK, what would it look like if I had to significantly reduce my travel or resort more to public transit. Have a plan in place for what that would look like. Similarly with, should some of these services that I rely on for my business go offline, do I have backups? Do I have an opportunity to do some things with paper and pen?

PM: How could Utah businesses be impacted? Say water utilities, sewage treatment plants. 

BA: That is actually one of the areas that concerns me the most because of the fact that we have seen some attacks in Florida. Threat actors were actually able to gain access to a water treatment plant, and they attempted to dump a high amount of sodium hydroxide, which is a caustic chemical, into the water supply. That would have been very damaging, if not lethal, to a lot of people in the Tampa area. And so hopefully that is something that we wouldn't have to deal with, but water contamination is something that could happen.

PM: What have you done at your house to shore things up? 

BA: Food storage, water storage. And in my case, with my baby, that means lots of boxes of formula that I've got ready. Just making sure that we've got enough stuff on hand and that we would be all right to get by for a couple of weeks.

KUER's Associate Producer Leah Treidler contributed to this article.

Pamela is KUER's All Things Considered Host.
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