Updated: Apr 9, 2022
‘’One two three four, they declare Cyber War. Five, six, seven, eight hackers do proliferate. Nine, ten, eleven, twelve servers can’t protect themselves. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen – The UN won’t intervene…’’
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has proven to be revolutionary in many aspects. However, we often overlook the related progression of cyber-warfare, in which non-combatants can cripple the largest of regimes through coordinated digital action. Have we entered the next stage of hacktivism? Examining recent events may provide an answer.
In the first weeks of the Russian Invasion, we have witnessed embarrassing breaches of Russian cybersecurity. Anti-war slogans and war footage was broadcasted on Russian TV channels, phones and gas pumps whilst hijacks of Russian governmental entities became widespread.
Prominent recent breaching acts have been the alleged shutdown of spy satellite connections, the halting of gas supply systems, the leaks of private data of staff members of the Russian Ministry of Defense and the leak of 300.000 files concerning Russia’s censorship of the Invasion.
Anonymous, an international collective of activist hackers, has been dedicated to preventing Russian military communication whilst going as far as to attempt to shift public opinion of the Russian population. Often referred as ‘Cyber Robin Hood’, Anonymous hacktivists from across the globe target individuals and organizations based on ideological positions and notions of social justice. The collective has aided in the Arab Spring, Hong Kong and Black Lives Matter protests. However, its ‘Operation Russia’ is by far the biggest cyber offensive in history and followed Anonymous’ unprecedented declaration of cyber war on a State. This declaration is a reaction to crimes of the Kremlin in Ukraine.
The precise ambitions of Anonymous in this War are, as the group itself, vague. The desire for halting of Russian aggression is evident, yet, the strategies and limitations of Anonymous’ activities against Russia remain undetermined as various attacks occur daily. Seeing that the collective operates through countless anonymous participants, functioning more as a movement or idea, it is concerning to imagine the true potentials of mass hacking.
The actions of Anonymous are known and so are the desire to alter Russian public opinion. However, is it successful in de-stabilizing the Russian Federation during its aggression on Ukraine? And, what are the societal implications for this new era of warfare?
First, let us examine the recent revolutionary military and civil actions conducted by Anonymous. MILITARY ACTIONS
It is no secret that Putin’s invasion has not gone according to plans and that widespread Ukrainian resistance has slowed down Russia’s forces. Clearly, Zelensky’s call for volunteers to help out physically or on the cyber front has been answered by many. Anonymous has no doubt contributed to the war effort, going as far as to directly jeopardize military operations. It’s first target being communication systems followed by military resources such as electricity and gas.
In the second week of the invasion, Anonymous intercepted Russian military radio frequencies and prevented widespread communication. Moreover, it took down websites of military services. Accordingly, the collective also allegedly managed to hijack the control center of the Russian space agency which prevented aerial surveillance and coordination in Ukraine. Next, Anonymous targeted Russian gas systems and the database from Belarusian weapon manufacturers destined for Ukraine. Evidently, these breaches did not aid Russia’s invasion and may have been one of the reasons causing the mysterious traffic jam of Russian vehicles in direction of Kyiv.
These actions, conducted by non-combatants, have had major consequences for Russia’s reputation and progress for the invasion. Putin’s government has stated that repeated attacks on satellite infrastructure would be an act of war. However, against whom? If a pre-pubescent Bangladeshi hacker angers Russia, is a war going to be waged upon Bangladesh? Since this is uncharted legal territory, it is unknown whether Russia desires counter-acting and exacting collective revenge. Or, Russia may misinterpret a cyber-attack as a state-executed attack. Similarly, cases exist where Anonymous hacktivists were willingly on unwillingly breaching data on behalf of a government. In this case, the risk of further world-wide escalation is alarming. Therefore, Zelensky’s call for physical and digital assistance becomes a slippery slope. A righteous one, yes. Yet, one where the actions of foreigners can cripple, or worse, embarrass Russia. The State is terrified of foreigner interference, and has already declared that foreign soldiers in Ukraine will be deemed ‘‘legal mercenaries’’, excluding fighters from civil treatment under the Geneva Convention. With Putin’s army at risk, and a massive foreign collective from across the globe targeting it, the irrational resentment towards the West may slip over into external action as to target hackers or bolster the might of Russia.
On March 20th, Anonymous called upon the world to join in the struggle and participate in the conflict through unconventional means by stating; ‘‘Smartphones are our weapons. We don’t need guns. We provide the ammunition’’. That ammunition comes in the form of 1920.in; a website established by Anonymous permitting foreigners to reveal the uncensored truth about the War to Russians by communicating with them. Through leaked data sets, Anonymous provides any individual with a Russian-based phone number or email to reveal different perspectives and footage of the war. In less than two clicks, you too can be connected to a random Russian. The revolutionary armchair cyber-attacks, and the hijacking of Russian media channels, are measures taken towards a common goal of protest and revolts against the establishment. This is achieved by flipping public opinion towards Putin by pumping additional sources of uncensored information among Russian citizens. Moreover, the hacking of financial systems and bank data has crippled the Russian population more and, in turn, the cross-hairs are aimed at the Kremlin. However, how is success of subsequent protests and revolts measured? According to Anonymous, the answer is very clear and lies with Putin. To say, the collective has communicated in its message to the Russian people, that the most peaceful end to the War would be for Putin to be removed from power. This method requires a complete opinion-shift towards Putin and likely involves an extremely challenging bloody Coup d’état.
A DAVID & GOLIATH STORY
The age-old strategy of influencing allegiance has reached another stage, whose success is yet to be determined. However, nearing the end of March 2022, Putin’s government understood the long-term goal of Anonymous and are determined to win the war of influence and public opinion. After all, Russia has been a main actor in global cyberspace and has allegedly directed dozens of attacks against foreign governments and organizations. Hackers attacking Russian domains were occasionally hacked or scammed themselves by Hacker groups such as Conti, that have aligned themselves to Russia’s digital army. Since Putin has cracked down massively on hacker groups, which is unprecedented, it cannot be confirmed whether the pro-Russian groups are truly ideologically loyal or are afraid of incarceration if they do not counter pro-Ukraine hackers. However, it can be stated that Russia truly desires to crack down on hackers, which is ironic following the last decade where ‘Russian hackers’ were ignored as long as it crippled the West.
The State is so concerned that it released a list of 17.756 localized IP addresses that are responsible for crashing Russian servers, as to instill fear and deter attacks. As can be seen, attacks originate from Chile to Russia itself. First, this illustrates the severity of the war campaign and the weakness of Russian authorities to efficiently block foreign interference. When Putin wants to keep efforts localized in W-Ukraine, digital armies portray the real threat from global spheres whilst continuing its cyber actions daily.
However, how threatful is an army of unknown individuals to Russia and to ourselves?
SLIPPERY VIRTUAL WARS The target of Anonymous is evident. Yet, the goals and extents keep widening and the Russian population is also indirectly targeted as to instill rage and cause Putin’s downfall in the long term. This arguable overreach is not only a threat to a passive population but to the extent of the war. Civilian hackers from across the globe may sit behind their screens and cause mayhem, but the consequences of their actions may be manifested onto others in an active warzone. This can be considered an action according to the ‘‘greater good’’, which Anonymous also determines. The morality of non-state actors involved in State warfare is questionable as the desire to assist is evident yet the implications are quite unknown. It is not everyday that an army of faceless men attacks your State, and in the moment of hyper-tense relations in the world, it must be ensured that a sloppy attack does not get confused for State-initiated actions. Otherwise, as Putin states, it shall be declared a war act. Through this frame, the largest war impossible lays at the doorstep and could be declared by a teenager whose IP address can be mistaken as US-originating.
The fear of nuclear war becomes more severe as the lines between state and non-state actors become blurred. To illustrate, it has already occurred that Anonymous hacktivists were tricked or forced to acquire sensitive information by FBI agents. The most terrifying issue of hacktivism are labels. To say, one man’s robin hood may be considered by a State as being a soldier of an opponent State. Once a justification is established, public opinion follows. We have seen this occur with Putin’s narrative of ‘‘denazification’’. A similar outcome may occur in which Putin justifies a military operation due to ‘Western hacking agencies that ruin the Ruble for hard-working Russians’.
Whatever the future may hold, it is important to keep wary of Anonymous. What if war is declared on a State that the world doesn’t massively denounce or resent? Would Anonymous still be supported, no matter their goals? As satisfying as it is to read about the group’s victories, the relatively-new weapon at the fingertips of civilians should make it clear that ideology and goals are not to be forgotten either in a world of diplomacy and precise politics. For example, Anonymous has declared Hungary as ‘pro-Russian’ due to partial sanctions and has therefore also declared cyber-war on that State. Let us reflect on the justifications and consequences.
I will admit that having independent hacktivists come up for Ukrainians is incredibly wholesome, and that Russia is caught with its pants down, is an added win. Yet, let us not get side-tracked by admiration and keep track of the unimaginable benefit or damage non-state actors may cause.