Spies Like Us: SUPO Highlights Russian Espionage, Terror Threats & Cyber Attacks In New Report

New report says intelligence operations against Finland are "sustained and ongoing" and specifically mentions Russia in this regard.

File picture of security system specialist sitting in front of bank of computer and monitors / Credit: iStock

Finland’s Security Intelligence Service SUPO says the country faces ongoing threats from cyber attacks as well as more traditional espionage activities and terrorism related to global events.

“The first terrorist attack committed on Finnish soil is now under investigation” writes SUPO Director Antti Pelttari, referencing a stabbing rampage last August in Turku that left two people dead and eight others wounded.

The attack, he says “came only a couple of months after SUPO had already been forced to raise its threat level for the third time, and we had also announced that the terrorist threat to Finland was more severe than ever”.

“At least it should be clear to everybody now that national security faces the same threats in Finland as elsewhere in Europe” says Pelttari.

Ongoing Cyber Threats

One of the primary security threats to Finland that SUPO highlights in its new report is state-backed cyber espionage.

The report comes as Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini used a speech in Lahti on Wednesday morning to highlight the importance of working together to fight cyber threats, and stress the need for Finland’s parliament to complete work on new intelligence laws which will give the security services extra powers.

“Close international co-operation and intelligence exchanges are needed to combat cyber attacks. Finland’s chances of participating in the exchange of intelligence will considerably improve when new intelligence laws are approved” said Soini.

SUPO’s new report reveals that the organisation was aware of several instances during 2017 when a cyber attack “had the systematic backing of a foreign power”.

“Intruding into a Finnish data system does not require any physical presence in Finland, and such operations can even be carried out in the source country during office
hours with the assistance of specialists in various fields” says the new SUPO report.

One main difficulty of countering these cyber threats is that many companies outsource their information management and subcontractors can be come compromised if their system security isn’t tight enough.

“While it is clear from the report that there is clear evidence of harmful cyber activities targeting our private sector companies, it is rather hard to evaluate the exact number or regularity of the attacks against our private sector organizations, as many of the attacks remain both under-identified and under-reported.” says Pasi Eronen from the Washington-based think tank Foundation for Defence of Democracies.

SUPO says the main targets of cyber attacks include technology companies involved in research and development work; mechanical engineering firms; health care technology or the energy sector.

The aim of the attacks, according to the Security Intelligence Service is not just to steal information, but also to find infrastructure weaknesses that might be exploited during a crisis.

Expert Pasi Eronen says the attacks we know about, are likelty to be just the tip of the iceberg.

“This is a major problem as not only it masquerades the true size of the problem, but it also hinders proper application of antidotes, such as putting in enough attention and resources to tackle the problem” he says.

Eronen adds that some of these issues will be fixed Finland implements new EU-wide security legislations, and updates its own intelligence laws to be on a par with Western peers.

Traditional Espionage

SUPO’s new report says foreign intelligence services continued to target Finland during 2017, and notes the number of spies stationed in the country is relatively high.

The report says that intelligence operations are sustained and ongoing, and that Finland is of interest in intelligence terms particularly to Russia.

“It should not be a surprise that Russia is interested in Finland” says Ilmar Metsalo, Senior Editor at Ulkopolitist foreign affairs journal.

“It’s completely normal to be interested in your neighbours. Finland is interested in Russia, Sweden, Norway and Estonia. The key thing here is what methods are used, and what goals the intelligence gathering has. There we can see some differences between Russia and our other neighbors” he says.

Information or intelligence gathering runs the gamut from clandestine, illegal operations to simply having conversations with decision makers, or translating newspaper articles.

But SUPO specifically says that some foreign countries have been trying to “control” their citizens who live in Finland, “to recruit human sources and to monitor political opponents and dissidents on Finnish soil”.

Among the topics of interest are Finnish policies on NATO, the Arctic, Baltic Sea security policy, technology and cyber security.

More seriously, SUPO says it became aware of “concrete efforts by foreign intelligence services to recruit clandestine human sources in Finland with a view to obtaining information that is not publicly available”.

Spies have also tried to recruit people to provide direct or indirect influence over political decisions, SUPO reports.

Of course cooperation with NATO and security policy are obvious targets, but so is the technology sector in Finland Ulkopolitist’s Ilmar Metsalo tells News Now Finland.

“The Finnish energy sector is also under intelligence gathering. According to SUPO, those who are spying on it are focusing on finding where the weak spots are, so that it could be shut down in a crisis” says Metsalo.

“Russia is not mentioned here [in the report] but pressuring other countries by attacking their critical infrastructure seems to be in the Kremlin’s toolbox” he states.