In the run-up to the FIFA World Cup, which takes place in Russia from 14 June to 15 July 2018, we will be publishing a series of articles focusing on the challenges which British organisations and individuals might face when operating in or travelling to the country this year.
While we will concentrate primarily on cyber threats, we will also include information on public and personal safety, financial risks and the political situation, particularly in view of the recent nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, and the tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions currently taking place in response to that.
Future articles will feature analysis of the threats to particular sectors, including the energy, financial and gaming industries. There will also be explorations of football hooliganism, national identity and racism in Russia.
This first article, however, provides a basic overview of events during the last World Cup, which was held in Brazil in 2014. This attracted a great deal of attention from both online hacktivists and street activists, and a general reminder of the cyber attacks and protests that took place during the run-up to the tournament should serve as a cautionary warning of what might be experienced in Russia in 2018.
In 2014, in the run-up to the World Cup in Brazil, various cyber operations were launched; these were known by several different names, including #OpWorldCup, #OpHackingCup, #OpMundial2014 and #OpBrazil.
Hacktivists typically focused their attentions on government or administrative sites, successfully targeting a wide range of them with DDoS attacks or data leaks.
@Anonymous asked people to boycott the tournament, and talked about how poor people were being displaced to make way for infrastructure development, with homes being demolished in favour of new stadiums, and workers injured or killed due to unsafe labour practices or ‘brutal’ employment conditions.
Police brutality was also highlighted as protesters took to the streets to demonstrate against economic inequality in the country and government corruption, and some cyber attacks were directed at law enforcement websites.
Other organisations were also targeted. For example, the Confederação Brasileira de Futebol was reported to be ‘tango down’; and data was leaked from universities and political party websites.
Meanwhile, street protests were taking place across Brazil. Riot police fired tear gas at demonstrators as the start of the tournament approached, and many people were arrested.
What will be noticeable from the above is that the cyber attacks – and indeed street protests – were mainly aimed at the Brazilian government, with issues such as political corruption, human rights and economic inequality consistently being highlighted.
While it may be assumed that the Russian government is unlikely to be targeted in the same way - and this is certainly true for the cyber sphere - street protests against President Putin and the Russian government do take place, particularly in Moscow and St Petersburg, and they attract a high number of participants.
In October 2017, for example, around 2000 protesters took to the streets of St Petersburg in an opposition rally staged to coincide with Putin’s 65th birthday. Similar events took place in other cities across Russia, with multiple arrests being made.
Police in Russia tend to clamp down hard on demonstrations, using varying degrees of force. Visitors to the country should avoid large public gatherings at all times, particularly when organised by political protesters. This advice is especially pertinent for all foreign nationals either resident in or visiting Russia during 2018.
With the recent reelection of Putin - and the record numbers apparently voting for him to assume yet another term in office - tensions are likely to be running high.