Before heading to his day job in “just another town” in Denmark, Jens spends about an hour in the morning defending Ukraine in cyberspace.
First, the 40-year-old IT professional checks the Telegram messaging app for a list of websites of Russian organizations and companies. Then it activates a program that automatically bombards the pages with fake requests.
Throughout the day, as he goes about his work, Jens regularly makes sure the software is doing what it’s supposed to do: overwhelming websites with so much traffic that they crash.
When he goes to bed, he knows he will start again the next day, in silence. His wife, friends and colleagues have no idea.
“I’m doing this to punish the Russians for their war crimes,” Jens told DW in an encrypted voice call. Like all the hackers interviewed for this article, he spoke on condition of anonymity because their activities are illegal.
He is one of thousands of pro-Ukrainian cyber guerrillas spread around the world who are launching attacks against targets in Russia or with ties to the country.
No one knows exactly how many there are. They have different motivations and use different cyber weapons, from simple online vandalism tools to sophisticated cyber operations. But they are united in their goal: to support the beleaguered Ukraine.
“Everyone is helping in whatever way they can,” said a Netherlands-based activist affiliated with hacking collective Anonymous.
For decades, countries have deployed cyber operations to sabotage their enemy, obtain sensitive information or sow confusion to thicken the fog of war.
But the war in Ukraine has given rise to an unprecedented form of online guerrilla warfare. Large groups of non-state participants can operate simultaneously without a central authority coordinating their efforts, interviews with hackers and experts suggest.
“It’s the nature of the beast,” said the anonymous activist.
The Core of the IT Army
The idea of recruiting a cyber army of volunteers was born when the war broke out at the end of February.
As the first missiles hit Ukraine, civilian experts from the country’s cybersecurity industry approached the country’s government to offer help, said entrepreneur Yegor Aushev, co-founder of the Ukrainian company. of cyber security Cyber Unit Technologies.
“Our only motive is to stop this war,” Aushev told DW by phone from a location near kyiv. When they encouraged other cyber experts to join them on social media, hundreds answered their call. A month after the start of the war, their number had risen to almost a thousand people, he estimates.
Ukrainian Yegor Aushev (r) called on hundreds of hackers to action
They can be seen as the central core of Ukraine’s IT army, working closely with the country’s government, according to Aushev. Most of its members have years of cybersecurity expertise; only those who find other experts to vouch for them are allowed access.
Their goal is to collect intelligence on the war and potential targets in Russia, which they share with the Ukrainian government, Aushev explained.
Another powerful player in Ukraine’s cyber guerrillas is the hacker collective Anonymous, a loose international hacker movement. Shortly after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, the hackers announced on Twitter that they were now “in cyber warfare against the Russian government”.
Since then, Anonymous has claimed responsibility for several incidents such as the hacking of Russian state TV channels.
Two anonymous members told DW they believe “hundreds” of people are performing advanced hacking operations. In addition, many other less qualified volunteers were involved in activities aimed at spreading information about the war among Russians, they said. For example, they use a website that allows people to text, WhatsApp, and email random people in Russia or call them.
This site was built by Squad 303, a collective with links to Anonymous, which started in Poland and now says it has over 100 members across the world, including Japan, Estonia, Germany and France. A member of Squad 303 told DW that in the first month of the war, their website sent over 40 million messages to people in Russia.
There are also a growing number of what insiders call “script kiddies” – volunteers with little cybersecurity experience who run hacking programs without fully understanding how they work.
Many of them joined the cyber guerrilla effort after Ukraine’s digital transformation minister took to Twitter to urge users to take action, adding a link to a Telegram channel with instructions in Ukrainian and in English. Every day, the administrators of this channel publish a list of IP addresses and encourage members of the group to bring down websites.
Ukraine’s digital transformation minister sent netizens to a Telegram channel with instructions to bring down Russian websites
It is this Telegram channel that Jens, a Danish IT professional, checks every morning for new targets. A month after the start of the war, she has more than 300,000 subscribers.
Criminal activity – which could turn against you
While the Ukrainian government has embraced cyber guerrilla activities, experts warn that these efforts could backfire. Hackers could accidentally damage unintended targets or provoke counterattacks by technically superior nation-state hackers.
“Each of these attacks makes the situation even worse,” said Dennis-Kenji Kipker, professor of computer security law at the University of Bremen, “and that will get us nowhere.”
He added that not all cyber guerrillas seemed aware that they were breaking the law.
Danish IT professional Jens said he knew what he was doing was illegal.
“I’m a very law-abiding person, I don’t even run a red light – I’m an ordinary person with an ordinary job in an ordinary town,” he said. “In peacetime, I would never do that.”
But in mid-March, when he saw footage of a bombed-out theater in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol with the word “children” written in Russian on the sidewalk outside, he decided to get involved.
“There is a war going on, and I consider myself a participant in the war, like many people in the Ukrainian IT army,” Jens said.
Edited by: Rina Goldenberg
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