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UKRAINE

How Switzerland is preparing to fend off Russian cyberattacks

While there is no imminent military threat against Switzerland, the government is getting ready for another kind of warfare with Russia — a digital one. What is it and why it could impact the entire Swiss population?

How Switzerland is preparing to fend off Russian cyberattacks
Switzerland’s electricity supply would be at risk in a cyberattack. Photo by Pixabay

The Federal Council’s sanctions against Russia after the outbreak of war in Ukraine expose Switzerland to retaliatory measures in cyberspace, according to a report by RTS public broadcaster.

Russia is reportedly angry about the neutral Switzerland’s support of EU measures and even placed the country on its blacklist of enemy nations.

READ MORE: Why is Switzerland on Russia’s ‘enemy country’ list – and what does it mean?

This is a new challenge for Switzerland, which has not been invaded in a conventional way in more 220 years, and has not fought in an armed conflict against another country even longer than that.

But now, “we can expect that the authorities and the [Swiss] financial institutions will be exposed and particularly targeted by the attackers”, the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) warned.

What exactly is cyberattack and how would such action against Switzerland impact you?

In general terms, this means that hackers damage, disable or destroy a computer network or system.

They can steal personal information related to bank accounts, credit cards, health history, and a wide range of other sensitive details.

It is bad enough when this happens to individuals, groups, or businesses. But imagine the extent of damage if hackers shut down essential government and civilian infrastructure, disrupting critical systems like power grids.

This could cause electrical blackouts, paralyse telecoms, hospitals, and other vital operations.

Experts warn that the whole country would stop functioning and no household or individual would be left untouched.

“Critical infrastructures are always more exposed than other infrastructures so we have to take stricter measures”, according to Michael Frank, director of the Association of Swiss Electrical Companies.

“The entire range of cyberattacks is within Russia’s capabilities, from blocking banking systems, shutting down power grids and cutting the water supply, to sabotaging communication networks”, AFP reports.

READ MORE: How Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already changed Switzerland

Is Switzerland sufficiently prepared to fight off such an attack from Russia?

NCSC said it is constantly analysing the situation in collaboration with the Federal Intelligence Service. But what about the industries that would be most impacted by such an attack?

According to RTS, their level of readiness varies:

Nuclear power stations

The Federal Nuclear Safety Inspectorate (IFSN), a supervisory authority for the nuclear installations in Switzerland, reports that “Swiss nuclear power plants are currently not facing a significant increase in cyberattacks in connection with the war in Ukraine”.

“But it goes without saying that attention has increased even further in the field of critical infrastructure, in particular in the energy sector, after the invasion of Ukraine”.

Swissgrid (electricity supply)

The national company responsible for the electricity transmission network, Swissgrid did not release details of its cybersecurity strategy but said it took all the necessary measures to guarantee the safety of the systems.

“Cybersecurity is of major strategic importance and is anchored in the company’s objectives”, Swissgrid said.

However, a report released by IFSN in July 2021, noted that Switzerland’s energy sector is “particularly ill-equipped when it comes to recognising attacks, reacting to them, and restoring their systems after an incident”.

But according to the report, the situation is slightly better in terms of prevention.

Swisspower (industrial services)

A strategic alliance of 22 industrial services and regional energy management companies, Swisspower launched a cybersecurity centre three years ago. It is a “computer emergency response team to combat cyber threats specifically targeting the energy sector”.

Following the flaws in its security that were revealed in June 2021 in the report of the Federal Office of Energy, Swisspower “has recognised that it must strengthen its resilience in the field of cybersecurity”, the company said.

Swiss Bankers Association

“Cybersecurity is an absolute priority for banks and they do everything they can to prevent cyber risks”, the umbrella organisation for Switzerland’s financial institutions said.

It added that Swiss banks “have always applied the most demanding standards in terms of security, in a concerted manner within the branch and in cooperation with the authorities “.

READ MORE: Could Switzerland defend itself against invasion?

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LIVING IN SWITZERLAND

‘A beautiful country’: How Ukrainian refugees see Switzerland

The Local’s Helena Bachmann is hosting two young Ukrainians in her home in Vaud. This is their take on the pros and cons of Swiss life.

'A beautiful country': How Ukrainian refugees see Switzerland

When Nadiia, 23, and her brother Roman, 16, left their home, mom and older brother in the city of Odessa, all they knew about Switzerland was that it was beautiful, clean and safe.

After arriving, they say they were not wrong on that score.

Their first impression when they arrived in mid-April was “amazing views, beautiful towns and villages”, Nadiia recalls.

As they got to know their surroundings in the Lake Geneva region, they made even more discoveries. Roman, for instance, was impressed by the state of Swiss roads and how the narrow ones could accommodate two-way traffic.

He also likes that most roads have bicycle lanes.

One advantage of seeing things with a fresh set of eyes is noticing seemingly trivial things that those of us living here don’t pay attention to and mostly take for granted.

Roman mentioned that there is no difference, in terms of infrastructure, between towns and countryside. How many of us have made this astute observation?

And Nadiia commented on the abundance of fountains that spout clean, drinkable water.

READ MORE: Ten things Geneva residents take for granted

Last but not least, and unlike many other foreigners who find the Swiss aloof, Nadiia and Roman’s experience has been the opposite.

All the people they’ve met so far have been “nice, friendly, kind, and helping us integrate”, Nadiia said.

Bottles, paper, batteries

Among their most surprising discoveries (aside from the ones mentioned above) was Switzerland’s recycling system.

Coming from a country where “everything is stuffed together in a bag and thrown into trash” — as Roman described his nation’s approach to recycling — the Swiss way of disposing of waste was a real eye-opener.

The two took to the new ‘recycling culture’ quickly and willingly, hauling household garbage to nearby bins and separating paper, cardboard, plastic and glass bottles, organic waste, and Nespresso coffee capsules more assiduously than we do.

Roman and Nadiia are equal to the (recycling) task. Photo: Helena Bachmann/The Local

“Easier life”

Both siblings like to cook, which we embraced with enthusiasm and gratitude.

We have been the lucky recipients of Ukrainian specialties such as borstch (a beet-based soup), as well as pelmeni and vareniki — round or crescent-shaped dumplings stuffed with ground meat or potatoes, respectively.

Needless to say — and that is a rare thing in our house — everything is made from scratch: beets, cabbage and carrots for the borstch are grated by hand, and the dough is made and kneaded manually as well.

When I pointed out that all the ingredients — such as grated beets and dough can be purchased pre-made, and that people in Switzerland usually don’t spend so much time in the kitchen, the two conceded that life here “is easier” as there are fewer domestic chores to do, but they still prefer the traditional, more laborious way of food preparation.

Prices and bureaucracy

In their six weeks here, the two have noticed some negative aspects of Swiss life as well.

The biggest shock — as is the case for most new arrivals — are the prices.

EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland so expensive?

On the day after they arrived in Vaud, Roman was stunned that a loaf of bread we bought cost 3 francs, while the same one sells for the equivalent of 50 cents in Ukraine. Cost of other consumer goods has been a shock as well, though they now begin to grasp that Ukrainian prices and wages can’t be extrapolated into Swiss ones.

Another thing the siblings don’t like so much is that shops close by 6:30 pm on most days, after which time there is not much to do, especially in the small town where we live.

Nadiia also mentioned how slow the Swiss bureaucracy is.

While the two received their status S — which allows them and other Ukrainian refugees to stay in Switzerland for a year — relatively quickly, the cantonal procedures related to integration and French language courses take much longer.

Switzerland’s special ‘S permit’ visa program: What Ukrainians need to know

However, they understand this slowness is due to the large number of Ukrainians that are currently here — more than 3,500 in Vaud as at beginning of May — who have to be processed as well.

The sheer number of people who have sought refuge in the canton in a short period of time is an unprecedented situation for all the services and departments dealing with these refugees, so delays are par for the course.

Oh yes, another important perk…

Among Roman’s personal Swiss-life favourites is the one allowing those over the age of 16 to drink some alcoholic beverages, while the legal drinking age in Ukraine is 18. 

So far he only had one beer, but it’s good to know Switzerland’s charms go well beyond chocolate and edelweiss.

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