Ukraine’s government has also called on people to take up digital weapons against Russia, with the country’s underground hacker enlisted in the fight, Reuters reported on Friday. The cyber response comes after Ukrainian government, banking and media websites were taken offline in distributed denial of service attacks. This is not unfamiliar territory for the Eastern European nation – it has borne the brunt of Russian cyber aggression for years.
Unprecedented, however, is the prospect that a global collective of digital warriors could rally around Ukraine to help fend off belligerence from Moscow. With the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the EU and even the United States refusing to get involved in the military battle currently taking place on Ukrainian soil, hackers and digital enthusiasts everywhere could become a powerful and visible defender of Ukraine.
Such an offensive could hurt President Vladimir Putin far more than he thinks and could be far more effective than economic sanctions. While Russian hackers are notoriously good at attacking foreign targets, including the 2020 SolarWinds breach, cyber defense is much more difficult. An offender only needs to succeed a few times to wreak havoc, but a defender needs to win pretty much all the time. And the Russian defenses are surely not bulletproof.
For now, cyber guerrillas are fighting fire with fire, taking major Russian websites offline after Russia did the same for Ukrainian websites, using a scattered approach to digital harassment. Hacktivists with Anonymous typically don’t have the same kind of expertise as state-backed cyber forces, which are trained and mobilized to plan incursions on web systems over several months. By contrast, hacktivists are often young and will hop into an online chat room in their spare time to discuss a so-called operation, downloading freeware and do-it-yourself software tools to join others. to, for example, help take a site offline.
It sounds like a sticks and tape exercise, but hacktivists have the advantage of scale, especially when a cause strikes a chord and becomes globally popular. In the past, they have managed to cause millions of dollars in damage. For example, when Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was arrested in 2010 and first threatened with extradition, thousands of people flocked to chat channels as part of “Operation Avenge Assange”. . They then followed instructions to download software that would help them attack the websites of major payment providers like PayPal and MasterCard; several participants were later arrested, but most went on with their lives.
Russian digital warfare often aims to sow discord and confusion – think back to Moscow’s disinformation campaign on social media during the 2016 US elections. Anonymous has also excelled at creating discord and confusion, waging cultural battles online by spreading memes and performing viral stunts aimed at undermining authority. After performing hacks that poked fun at figures ranging from Tom Cruise and the Church of Scientology to Rupert Murdoch, Anonymous’ greatest potential may be to overthrow Putin’s position as an authoritative figure in Russia, a crucial problem for the leader extremely concerned about his image.
Years of exposure to cyberaggression have also bolstered Ukraine’s resilience, allowing it to quickly recover from recent incursions. Russia’s digital fortifications may not have been fully tested yet. And if the attackers were successful, the possibility of bringing down the systems that control transport, telecommunications, banking, energy and even mining could at the very least disrupt Moscow in the midst of war, and at worst put an end to to these operations.
The first signs of what collective action could accomplish were seen last month when a Belarusian group called Cyber Partisans targeted the Belarusian national railway company in order to disrupt Russian troop movements across the country. There are already fears that Russia’s cyberattacks on Ukraine could go global, with the United States a likely target.
But the reverse is also true. Cyber warfare could be an effective strategy deployed by national agencies. Rather than putting troops on the ground, Washington, through its United States Cyber Command, could get to work trying to shut down energy and gas operations and disrupt communications. Allied governments can choose to acknowledge such action or deny any involvement.
But with non-governmental actors like Anonymous, Cyber Partisans and the coalition being built by the Ukrainian government also joining the fight, it may not be so easy to blame. And ultimately irrelevant.
Putin started this fight. Perhaps the digital warriors of the world can help end it.
More from this writer and others on Bloomberg Opinion:
• Russia’s Chaos Cyber Campaign Should Fail: Parmy Olson
• Beware of Ransom-Free Chinese Ransomware: Tim Culpan
• The Ukrainian crisis has given the EU Mojo. Will it last? : Lionel Laurent
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.
Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. She has previously reported for The Wall Street Journal and Forbes and is the author of “We Are Anonymous”.