Ukraine, Russia, Hacking, and Misinformation: A Very Different Kind of War Is Being Fought on the Internet.

From CJR’s The Media Today by Mathew Ingram headlined “Ukraine, Russia, hacking, and misinformation”:

AS SOLDIERS AND CIVILIANS IN UKRAINE continue to resist an invasion by Russian troops, a very different kind of war is being fought on a separate front: the internet. Within hours of Russian troops attacking cities and government facilities in Ukraine, hackers—including some who claimed to be affiliated with the underground group known as Anonymous—went after a number of Russian government sites and systems. While some of these cyber-attacks appeared to be designed just to cause annoyance, others were aimed at shutting down the Russian government’s operational abilities, or revealing what military intelligence officials in Russia might know. The battle has also seen attempts by Russia to hack information networks, by using propaganda and misinformation on social and traditional media.

Some of the cyber-hacking attempts were invited by the Ukrainian government itself. Starting Thursday morning, posts started to appear on a variety of hacker forums, asking for volunteers to protect critical infrastructure and conduct cyber missions against Russia, according to a report from Reuters. The posts call on the “Ukrainian cybercommunity” to “get involved in the cyber defense of our country,” and invite hackers to apply via Google docs. Yegor Aushev, co-founder of a cybersecurity company in Kyiv, told Reuters he was asked by a senior Defense Ministry official to write the posts.

Groups of pro-Ukraine hackers have also come together to launch a variety of attacks on Russian infrastructure and command systems, Politico reported. And a group known as the Belarusian Cyber Partisans, “hacktivists” based in Belarus who are opposed to Russia’s invasion, , said they have created a tactical organization to help Ukraine’s military fight against Russia. The group claimed in January, ahead of Russia’s recent invasions, that it had encrypted parts of the computer systems used by the state railway in Belarus, in an attempt to slow down the movement of Russian troops by rail.

Ukrainian officials hope that hackers and cybersecurity experts might protect the country’s critical infrastructure from Russian hackers—a concern that is more than theoretical. In 2015, a cyberattack crippled Ukraine’s power plants and left 225,000 Ukrainians without electricity; many believe hackers affiliated with the Russian government caused the outage. In 2017, the night before Ukrainian Constitution Day, a ransomware attack that came to be known as NotPetya caused an estimated $10 billion in damages globally, and, according to analysts, was concentrated in Ukraine.

The consensus among a number of countries, including the US and UK, is that Russia was behind NotPetya, which leveraged a kind of attack that the US National Security Agency in the US has used in the past. (The attack methodswere leaked in 2017.) Last week, a piece of malicious software—one that infects computers and then wipes them of data—was found on a number of critical systems in Ukraine, including those of several government agencies and a financial institution.Suspicion has fallen on Russia as the source of the cyber-attack.

In terms of attacks and defensive measures in social media, Russia’s state censor announced late last week that it would start curtailing access to Facebook because the social network limited the reach of Russian media outlets, according to Kevin Rothrock, an editor with the independent Russian media outlet Meduza, which is based in Latvia. Over the weekend, YouTube announced that Russia Today, the state media outlet, would no longer be allowed to monetizeits content on the video-sharing network, and that Russian media outlets will not be allowed to advertise on other Google services, such as Gmail.

There are also social-media accounts filling a different role that is commonplace during wartime: profiteers. Taylor Lorenz wrote for Input magazine about a wave of Instagram accounts that have been posting misinformation about the conflict in Ukraine—not because they are working for Russia or Ukraine, or even care about the specifics of the conflict, but because they want to go viral, in order to generate as much advertising revenue as they can. “What I’m trying to do is get as many followers as possible by using my platform and skills,” the administrator for @livefromukraine and @POVwarfare told Lorenz.

Here’s more on the Russia/Ukraine conflict:

  • Intelligence: The Harvard Gazette spoke with Lauren Zabierek, a former Air Force intelligence officer and current director of the Cyber Project at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs,about Russia’s cyberwarfare capabilities, and what a cyberattack against the US might look like. “We don’t have any indications of immediate attack,” she said, “but we do know that Russians have at least conducted reconnaissance activities against our critical infrastructure for years and may have implanted some sort of tools to impact these services in response to US or allied foreign policy action.”
  • Free tools: Runa Sandvik, a security analyst who has worked with journalists at the New York Times and Freedom of the Press Foundation, offered on Twitter to give any journalists in Ukraine free virtual private network accounts so they could access the internet anonymously. And FlokiNET, a hosting service based in Finland that says it provides a safe place for activists and whistleblowers, offered its tools to journalists as well.
  • Debunking: Renee DiResta, technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, said on Twitter that “the proliferation of video content purportedly coming out of conflict zones is a challenge for debunkers, but nearly impossible for ordinary audiences. Reverse image search doesn’t perform well [and] it’s essentially impossible to do from an app like TikTok.” Jared Holt and Sam Thielman put together an edition of their newsletter with links to reputable sources for information on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, including Bellingcat and Jane Lytvynenko of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center.

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