Sat, Nov 03, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Russian detained as agent studied US groups’ cyberdefenses

By Desmond Butler  /  AP, WASHINGTON

A year before US federal prosecutors accused Maria Butina of operating as a secret agent for the Russian government, she was a graduate student at American University (AU) working on a sensitive project involving cybersecurity.

Butina’s college assignment called for her to gather information on the cyberdefenses of US nonprofit organizations that champion media freedom and human rights. It was information that could help the groups plug important vulnerabilities, but also would be of interest to the Russian government.

In fact, the Russians previously had in their sights at least two of the groups that she and other students interacted with.

Butina participated in the project under the tutelage of a respected professor who advised the US Department of State on cybersecurity matters. It was carried out for the nonprofit group Internews, which works extensively with the US government to bolster the free flow of information in dangerous parts of the world and has drawn Russian ire with some of its programs in Russia and neighboring countries. The group also advises other nonprofits on cybersecurity.

Internews confirmed Butina’s involvement and a broad description of what the project involved.

A lawyer for Butina did not respond to a request for comment.

Butina’s project raised few eyebrows before her arrest in July, despite news reports already having posed questions about her rapid rise from selling furniture in Siberia and her ties with Kremlin officials.

As part of the project, a small group of students led by Butina were given a list of Internews partners working on human rights and press freedom issues for research purposes only, with the understanding that they not be contacted without consultation.

However, the students contacted some of the groups anyway, according to people involved in the project who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to describe the work.

An individual who has worked on US programs in Ukraine told reporters that after Butina’s arrest, he was briefed by US officials who expressed concern that two Internews programs in Ukraine — dealing with media freedom and cybersecurity, and funded by the State Department — might have been exposed to Russian intelligence and might be at risk due to Butina’s student work.

Department spokesman Robert Palladino said that it was not involved with the Internews project Butina worked on.

“We have verified that all documents Internews provided to its students were publicly available and we remain confident in the integrity of the State Department’s programs with Internews,” Palladino said.

Kostiantyn Kvurt, who heads a local nonprofit that Internews helped establish, Internews Ukraine, said he was unaware of Butina’s project before being informed of it by reporters, but already was wary of potential Russian intelligence interference.

“If they understand how to break our firewalls, they could find our partners,” Kvurt said. “People could get detained, tortured, killed.”

Internews said the students were never given access to the group’s work or systems.

“The selection of the students and their roles and activities in the research was solely determined by AU faculty,” spokeswoman Laura Stein Lindamood said. “Internews is currently reviewing our relationship with university-led student projects.”

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