Hacktivist groups are hijacking government websites and news organisations in an attempt to ‘broadcast the truth’
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we’re looking at what seems to be the future of warfare: cyberattacks and information being used as weaponry alongside military strikes. Last week, a group claiming to be murky hacking collective Anonymous tweeted it was “officially in cyberwar against the Russian government”. With misinformation and disinformation rife on both sides, and global groups getting involved in the pursuit of a common enemy, the chaotic nature of cyberspace is causing confusion as well as real-time disruption to infrastructure as the conflict progresses.
So far, hackers have reportedly targeted government websites, state broadcasters, the site of Russian oil giant Gazprom, and a rail network reportedly used to move troops from Russia to Ukraine. Anonymous has claimed responsibility for 1,500 cyberattacks over the past few days, and said it had hacked TV stations to show footage of a young father saying goodbye to his wife and daughter as they fled, as well as images of bombs and damaged buildings. Russian TV stations were supposedly also broadcasting Ukrainian songs in place of propaganda.
Some of Russia’s main news organisations, including Tass and Kommersant, were apparently hijacked to display “5,300”, the estimated death toll of Russian troops, along with a request that citizens “stop this madness, do not send your sons and husbands to certain death”. The report allegedly continued: “Putin makes us lie and puts us in danger. In a few years we will live like in North Korea. What is it for us? To put Putin in the textbooks? This is not our war, let’s stop it.” The words were footnoted with Anonymous’s logo and the sign-off: “This message will be deleted, and some of us will be fired or even jailed. But we can’t take it anymore... Indifferent journalists of Russia.” Russia responded to the hack by blocking these news outlets.
In more of a trolling move rather than a threatening one, the group also claimed to hack maritime data from Putin’s yacht, renaming it ‘FCKPTN’ and setting its destination as ‘hell’. The £73 million yacht, which contains an indoor pool, spa, dancefloor, gym, bar, and helideck – is a fraction of Putin’s estimated $70 billion fortune. Meanwhile, a Belarusian group called the Cyber Partisans claimed they’d attacked the railways in an attempt to “slow down the transfer of occupying forces and give the Ukrainians more time to repel the attack”.
Rising to prominence around a decade ago, Anonymous earned a reputation as a mysterious and disruptive group with no centralised leadership, making them difficult to report on or tie events to. A member of the collective previously described their driving force as “anti-oppression”. Last year, they shared a message opposing “narcissistic rich dude” Elon Musk, calling out his behaviour on social media and influence over cryptocurrency markets. They also previously targeted TikTok, describing it as “essentially malware operated by the Chinese government running a massive spying operation.”
As a collective who remains, as their name would imply – anonymous, it’s hard to confirm exactly which hacks are tied to the organisation, with splinter groups and disparate social media accounts. That’s in addition to the widespread mis- and disinformation circulating on social platforms right now, and the presence of vigilante hackers operating on their own. “A word of caution: hacktivists are not always what they seem,” cybersecurity firm Recorded Future said in a briefing about the threat to Ukraine. “The Russian government has been known to hide behind so-called hacktivist groups including CyberBerkut, a group targeting Ukraine particularly in 2014 and 2015 which has since been attributed to Russia’s GRU.”
There have been recent Anonymous communications that have turned out to be false: a fake Anonymous video claimed it would withdraw money from Russian citizens’ bank accounts if they did not protest Putin’s actions. A high-profile Anonymous account then tweeted a message of reassurance: “To the people of Russia: We do not want to fight with you”, the account said. “Understand that Putin has invaded a sovereign nation and the whole world is outraged. We know it’s risky to stand up to him, but if you don’t, then who will?”
Russian influence operations, Recorded Future say, have included widespread claims that Ukraine is being ‘demilitarised’ and ‘de-nazified’, and paint the West as an aggressive force. There are also false reports of Ukrainian military surrender as well as their incompetence. A fake Telegram account purporting to be Zelensky asked forces to lay down their arms and stop resisting. Social media accounts have also been limited in Russia, meaning bleak images of the humanitarian crisis are less likely to reach Russians.
A tweet from @YourAnonNews suggested one way for people to combat the Kremlin’s propaganda: by leaving five-star reviews on Russian businesses via Google Maps, and writing about the real developing situation in Ukraine. A similar idea has been proposed for Tinder users, who can set their geolocation to Russia and write about what is happening in their bio.
We are creating an IT army. We need digital talents. All operational tasks will be given here: https://t.co/Ie4ESfxoSn. There will be tasks for everyone. We continue to fight on the cyber front. The first task is on the channel for cyber specialists.— Mykhailo Fedorov (@FedorovMykhailo) February 26, 2022
Meanwhile, Ukranian vice president Mykhailo Fedorov has pointed to the recruitment of “digital talents” for an “IT army”. A Telegram account, he tweeted, would be used to hand out “all operational tasks... There will be tasks for everyone. We continue to fight on the cyber front. The first task is on the channel for cyber specialists.”
Meta’s global affairs head (and former deputy PM) Nick Clegg said the company had launched a dedicated force to combat fake news. “This is a fast-moving situation and our teams remain on high alert,” he wrote on Twitter. However, in a bid to combat this, Russia limited access to Facebook. Meta said that it would label the accounts of Russian-owned media outlets, but Russian authorities called the restrictions “censorship” and accused Facebook of violating human rights.
Should we be worried about future cyber attacks? “There is a roughly even chance that Russia-based cybercriminal groups will increasingly target Western organisations in retaliation for the West’s support of Ukraine and the sanctions imposed on Russia,” Recorded Future say. “It is highly likely that we will continue to see Russian propaganda and influence operations attempt to create confusion and uncertainty about the progress of the invasion, and will likely look to generate panic among the Ukrainians, potentially in an attempt to coerce a change in government.”
If you want to do something to help amid the ongoing crisis, here are five actionable ways to support the people of Ukraine.