Identity among the cyber aid Ukraine needs during conflict with Russia

Identity issues become a problem for refugees displaced by conflict, such as those fleeing Ukraine during the Russian invasion. Pictured: Ukrainian flags are displayed in various locations around Tbilisi, Georgia, to show support for Ukraine on May 21, 2022. (Photo by Daro Sulakauri/Getty Images)

DENVER — There is a torrent of identity issues that emerge from displaced people that requires unique solutions, a panel explained at the Identiverse conference on Tuesday.

Refuges may be left without birth certificates, licenses, diplomas and certifications — and many of the institutions that stored original copies may be destroyed in a conflict. Aid agencies have to deal with fraudulent refugees. Invading nations — like Russia recently — may forcibly capture citizens, displace them to camps, and use their identity against targeted groups.

"We're seeing right now with Russia, capturing Ukrainians and then for forcefully moving down to Russia and putting people through filter camps. So identity, personal identity formation, becomes a huge part. If you served in the military in the past, even like decades before, that could be a point of detention, you know — and not just detention, but just to kill you," said Yuriy Ackermann, vice president of War Efforts with Hideez group.

Click here for more SC Media coverage from the Identiverse Conference.

Oleg Naumenko, the CEO of Hideez Group, was originally slated to be part of the panel but was unable to get transit permits to leave Ukraine while the Ukrainian government restricts males' ability to leave the country.

Ackermann and Yubico senior principal architect John Bradley, also on the panel, discussed their meeting at a conference in Dubai, where Ackermann asked Bradley if Yubico could help secure identity in Ukraine.

"OK, I'll see what I can do. And by the end of the afternoon, as an hour later, he comes back and says,, 'Here's 20,000 keys. Where do we send them?'" said Ackermann.

"I actually had to prevent our CTO from taking them himself in parachuting into the center of Kyiv to deliver them," said Bradley.

Bradley detailed several of the problems with emergency issuance of identity authenticator tools. The entire enterprise required translation services to allow Ukrainians to participate. Ukraine, a former Soviet state, commonly uses Russian encryption mechanisms, and transitioning Ukrainians to Western algorithms would be complex, even without distrust of NSA involvement in Western standards.

The identity industry, they agreed, was focused on larger countries, but not well understood by vulnerable ones that may need it the most.

"If you ask me where we are failing with identity," said Ackermann, "we are failing with localization."

Localization is harder than just translation, said Nat Sakimura, chair of the OpenID Foundation. But translation alone is a difficult task. Concepts like alphabetical order do not translate. Ukrainian does not have words for many identity management terms, and there is not a single agreed-upon spelling for the translated word for authentication.

The Identiverse conference, ongoing in Denver, is run by SC Media parent company Cyber Risk Alliance.

Ackerman mused about the broader cyber conflict, U.S. involvement and Russian failures.

"Sanctions work," said Ackermann. Russians need hardware and software, and are unable to pay potential cyber operators.

Ackermann marveled that cybercriminals stayed out of the conflict.

"From perspective of cybercriminals, it is quite funny, but none of them want to work with Russian governments. They are fine with attacking hospitals — but killing people, that's different job," he joked.

It had been a rough three months, he said, and he could only laugh.

Joe Uchill

Joe is a senior reporter at SC Weekly, focused on policy issues. He previously covered cybersecurity for Axios, The Hill and the Christian Science Monitor’s short-lived Passcode website.

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