Tech professor discusses war in Ukraine – Technique – Technique

When Nadiya Kostyuk immigrated from Ukraine to the United States in 2007, she wanted to be an English interpreter. Or a psychoanalyst. She realized neither career was viable. Instead, she pursued a second bachelor’s degree – having already graduated from Kyiv National Linguistic University – but this time, in international criminal justice. On a school trip, she asked a staff member at the International Criminal Court whether they would prosecute cybercrimes. 

The staff member said, “We’re dealing with genocide. Cyber has little impact on the loss of human life.” 

This interaction – along with many others involving government officials and members of civil society – led her to pursue different variations of the question, how important are cyber capabilities in conflict and why? Today, she is an assistant professor at the School of Public Policy and the School of Cybersecurity and Privacy at Tech. She also directs the Cybersecurity Summer Institute and co-chairs the Digital Institute Discussion Group. She analyzes complex cyber issues and translates their significance to academics, students, and policymakers, as well as to the media. She is no prophet of cyber doom. But she says we have yet to see the full extent of Russia’s cyber capabilities. 

She doesn’t want to talk about her family – not citing privacy concerns – but because, “it gets me sad.” During the phone interview, her voice warms with nostalgia as she shares her story, switching to a compact, analytical tone when she assesses the cyber domain of conflict in Ukraine.

Technique: What was your first reaction when Russia invaded Ukraine? 

Shock. When I was studying international criminal justice, I did field work in the former Yugoslavia. I visited mass graves in the aftermath of the war. I saw how families were torn apart. How could a similar conflict happen in the middle of Europe in 2022? Yes, there was political turmoil in Ukraine. But for the most part, it was peaceful.

I was just there last summer and had hoped to go again this summer. I’m not sure when I can return home.

Technique: What role has social media played in the crisis? 

We have so much access to information, videos. It also spreads all this misinformation and disinformation by both sides. Many people are trying to help. But there’s not that much they can do. The world is trying to help. But they are not directly engaged for clear reasons. We’re watching how people are being killed. It’s insane.

Technique: How have you maintained your internal balance? 

Covid hit everyone hard in different ways. We were just beginning to feel a bit better. And then Ukraine happened. It felt like another slap in the face.

Obviously for the first few days, I spent time catching up with family and friends there. And watching the news. Being in shock.

But then you realize the war isn’t going to end in a day or two. So, I decided to call my family in the morning. And then I focus on work. When I have lunch, I catch up on the news. But I’m not watching all the time. It doesn’t help. It doesn’t help the situation.

Stressed students, too, should try to limit their own exposure. Set boundaries when you feel overwhelmed. Do what you enjoy doing. I like biking. 

Technique: Why should Tech students care about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? 

The crisis will shape the global order. I know, it’s a grandiose statement. But look at Russia’s actions: they tried to prevent Ukraine from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), contrary to the principle of self-determination. The invasion itself violates the UN Charter’s prohibition on the use of military force against another state. Russia’s actions are undermining the principles established since the end of World War II. 

I talked to my colleagues in Europe. For them, the nuclear threat is very real. Their average population is frightened of a nuclear war. There are restraints on Putin from using nuclear weapons. But it’s a real possibility. Non-NATO members are watching to decide what to do. The invasion also sets a dangerous precedent for others. China is watching how far Russia can go. 

I teach at this new school, the School of Cybersecurity and Privacy. It adopts an interdisciplinary approach. It’s important to look at the issue from different angles. We focus on cyber and privacy, two sides of one coin. But recent events have shown their relevance on a global scale to students.

Technique: What should we know about the cyber dimension of the war? 

There’s a lot of misunderstanding. People fear a “cyber Pearl Harbor” or “cyber 9/11.” But the role of cyber capabilities in this conflict is more restrained. 

Compare the fear of cyber to our fear of nuclear weapons in the 1950s and 1960s. They’re dangerous, of course. But we didn’t know how to think about it. It took us a while to figure out how to use nukes as a deterrent. With cyber, we’re moving faster. But it’s still taking a while. 

We don’t know all the cyberattacks and cyberespionage that Russia has deployed. Russia is probably inside western networks. But the Russians haven’t shut down networks yet. And they’re unlikely to because they don’t want to escalate the conflict with NATO. But it’s possible. 

Technique: In February, the Ukrainian Digital Minister publicly called for hackers around the world to help defend Ukraine’s infrastructure and to spy on Russia. Anyone with a computer could participate in conflict. That seems like a change in the nature of war.

Yes, this is a change in modern warfare. A conventional conflict is usually between two militaries. But in the cyber realm, risks and attacks happen at the individual level. One report found that 88% of data breaches occur because of human error. It takes one employee to click a phishing mail to give hackers access to the company or government network. 

And there are plenty of real-world examples of this. Then you have individuals outside of Ukraine hacking Russia. Hackers from the diaspora and sympathizers of Ukraine. The risk is that Russia can exploit the difficulty of attribution to strategically escalate the conflict. 

Technique: What have your interactions been like with Tech students regarding the crisis? 

Students in my class ask me how I feel. I have also been lecturing on the conflict in other classes. And we had a panel discussion on Ukraine in January before the invasion. 

There has been increasing general awareness of the importance of looking at both technical and social aspects of cybersecurity. Cybersecurity is no longer only a technical issue; it carries significant geopolitical implications

Technique: Have Ukrainian professors at Tech corresponded with each other? 

Yes, through email. But I’m also involved in a larger community outside of school. I have friends who came here around the same time as I did, fifteen years ago. 

There has been overwhelming support from the neighboring community. People volunteering, providing funds, helping Ukrainian refugees. I have received so much support. Messages, emails, notes. People have offered to teach classes. 

Technique: You majored in English and Psychology in Kiev and ended up with a doctorate in political science focusing on cybersecurity. For the undecided majors at Tech, do you have any advice?  

Celebrate, enjoy, and relax. When students get an undergraduate degree, they feel this is the end. I’m sure that’s how it felt at the end of high school, too. 

But this is just the beginning of something wonderful. You now have a chance to apply what you’ve learn to practice and figure out what you want to do in life. Something you stick to your path. But sometimes people realize that they want to do something different and pursue another degree, a master’s or a PhD. People switch careers all the time. 

It may take a while to discover what you want to do. That’s fine.

Remember, this is just the start, the beginning of something grand.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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