Ukraine’s digital army prepares cyberattacks, intelligence and information warfare

BOSTON (AP) — Formed in the fury of countering Russia’s blitzkrieg, Ukraine’s volunteer ‘hacker’ corps, made up of hundreds of volunteers, is much more than a paramilitary cyberattack force in Europe’s first major war of the internet age. It is crucial for information warfare and intelligence crowdsourcing.

“We really are a swarm. A self-organizing swarm,” said Roman Zakharov, a 37-year-old IT manager at the Ukrainian Digital Army Center.

Inventions by willful hackers range from software tools that allow smartphone and computer owners anywhere to participate in distributed denial-of-service attacks on official Russian websites to bots on the Telegram messaging platform that block misinformation, allow people to report the location of Russian troops, and offer instructions on assembling Molotov cocktails and basic first aid.

Zahkarov conducted research at an automation startup before joining Ukraine’s Digital Self-Defense Corps. His band is StandForUkraine. Its ranks include software engineers, marketing managers, graphic designers and online ad buyers, he said.

The movement is global, drawing on Ukrainian diaspora IT professionals whose work includes web defacements with anti-war messages and graphic images of death and destruction in hopes of mobilizing Russians against the invasion.

“Our two nations are afraid of one man – (Russian President Vladimir) Putin,” Zakharov said. “He’s just crazy.” Volunteers are contacting Russians person-to-person through phone calls, emails and text messages, he said, and sending videos and photos of dead soldiers of the invasion force from military centers. virtual calls.

Some are creating websites, such as a “site where Russian mothers can browse (photos) of captured Russian guys to find their sons,” Zakharov said by phone from Ukraine’s capital Kyiv.

The effectiveness of cybervolunteers is difficult to assess. Russian government websites have been repeatedly taken offline, even briefly, by DDoS attacks, but have generally overcome them with countermeasures.

It’s impossible to say how much of the disruption – including the most damaging hacks – is caused by freelancers working independently but in solidarity with Ukrainian hackers.

A tool called “Liberator” allows anyone in the world with a digital device to become part of a DDoS attack network, or botnet. The tool’s programmers code new targets as priorities change.

But is it legal? Some analysts say it violates international cyber standards. Its Estonian developers say they acted “in coordination with the Ministry of Digital Transformation” of Ukraine.

A senior Ukrainian cybersecurity official, Victor Zhora, insisted in his first online press conference of the war on Friday that the local volunteers were only attacking what they considered to be military targets, in which he included the financial sector, the Kremlin-controlled media and the railways. He didn’t talk about specific goals.

Zakharov did. He said Russia’s banking sector was well-fortified against attacks, but some telecommunications networks and rail services were not. He said cyberattacks staged by Ukraine briefly disrupted train ticket sales in western Russia around Rostov and Voronezh and disrupted phone service for some time in the eastern region of Russia. Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists since 2014. The claims could not be independently confirmed.

A group of Belarusian hacktivists calling themselves the Cyberpartisan also apparently disrupted rail service in neighboring Belarus this week, seeking to frustrate transiting Russian troops. A spokeswoman said Friday that e-ticket sales were still down after their malware attack froze the railways’ computer servers.

Over the weekend, Ukrainian Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov announced the creation of a volunteer cyber army. Ukraine’s IT Army now has 290,000 Telegram subscribers.

Zhora, vice president of the special state communications service, said one of the tasks of Ukrainian volunteers is to obtain intelligence that can be used to attack Russian military systems.

Some cybersecurity experts have expressed concern that seeking help from freelancers who violate cyber standards could have dangerous escalating consequences. A shadowy group claimed to have hacked into Russian satellites; Dmitry Rogozin, director general of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, called the claim false, but was also quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that such a cyberattack would be considered an act of war.

When asked if he approved of the type of hostile hacking carried out under the umbrella of the Anonymous hacktivist brand – which anyone can claim – Zhora replied: “We do not welcome any illegal activity in cyberspace.”

“But the world order changed on February 24,” he added, when Russia invaded.

The overall effort was spurred by the creation of a group called the Ukrainian Cybervolunteers by a civilian cybersecurity official, Yegor Aushev, in coordination with the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense. Aushev said he had more than 1,000 volunteers.

As of Friday, most telecommunications and internet in Ukraine were fully operational despite blackouts in areas captured by invading Russian forces, Zhora said. He reported about 10 hostile hijackings of local government websites in Ukraine to spread false propaganda saying the Ukrainian government had capitulated.

Zhora said suspected Russian hackers continue to try to spread destructive malware in targeted email attacks against Ukrainian officials and – in what he sees as a new tactic – to infect people’s devices. individual citizens. Three instances of this malware were discovered while preparing for the invasion.

US Cyber ​​Command assists Ukraine long before the invasion. Ukraine does not have a dedicated military cyber unit. He was standing when Russia attacked.

Zhora anticipates an escalation in Russia’s cyberaggression – many experts believe much worse is yet to come.

Meanwhile, donations from the global computing community continue to pour in. A few examples: NameCheap has donated internet domains while Amazon has been generous with cloud services, Zakharov said.

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