The Russia-Ukraine war was always going to have a very major cyber component. And, in the past week, we have seen just how much the war is playing out online, on a wide array of fronts.
Given what we know and expect from Russia, it’s unlikely to come as a shock that – according to data from Checkpoint Research – in the first three days of combat, cyber-attacks on Ukraine’s government and military sector went up by 196%, compared to the rest of February.
But what has been interesting to watch has been the fightback, with attacks on Russia up 4% for the week. It might not sound like much, but there has been noticeable pushback from white hat hackers, hactivist groups and others on the counterattack.
Meanwhile, Ukraine has launched its own volunteer IT army, looking to respond to Russian cyber-attacks. Ukraine’s deputy PM Mykhailo Fedorov made the announcement on Telegram, stating:
We have a lot of talented Ukrainians in the digital sphere: developers, cyber specialists, designers, copywriters, marketers… We continue to fight on the cyber front.
A separate Telegram channel, reported to contain 175,000 people, is used to assign tasks such as distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on key Russian websites including government sites, banks, and energy businesses. Russian state media site Tass has also been targeted by hackers to show the number of Russian casualties.
The conflict has even drawn division among ransomware groups. The Conti group had its internal communications leaked this week by a pro-Ukraine member who was angry that the group had sided with Russia.
As with any major news event, misinformation and disinformation are everywhere on social media. Beyond the expected viral videos or photos that turn out to be old or completely unrelated, there’s already evidence that disinformation is circulating from pro-Russian forces.
Both Twitter and Facebook reported this week that they removed two pro-Russian covert influence operations from Russia and Belarus. Meta’s head of security Nathaniel Gleicher and director of threat disruption David Agranovich said the operations were run from Russia and Ukraine, and were targeting people in Ukraine on multiple platforms and websites.
“We took down this operation, blocked their domains from being shared on our platform, and shared information with other tech platforms, researchers and governments,” they said in a blog post. The network in question was relatively minor, with about 4,000 accounts following one page on Facebook, and fewer than 500 following its Instagram accounts. The sites were pushing many of the lines Putin was using to justify the invasion.
As we have seen recently with bot activity, they generate realistic-looking profile pictures of people pretending to be journalists and experts.
How social media responds
Within Russia itself, access to Twitter and Facebook has reportedly been restricted, in part on the basis that Facebook had refused demands to stop factchecking Russian media outlets.
Facebook then went a step further with the company’s president of global affairs, Nick Clegg, announcing via tweet that Meta would restrict access to RT and Sputnik in the European Union.
TikTok soon followed Facebook’s move. Twitter has not yet gone as far, but announced it would label any link from state-run media as such, stating that the majority of the links to Russian state-run media tend to come from individual accounts, not the accounts associated with the media outlet. The company also tweaked its algorithm so that the links won’t appear in top search results.
Google and Facebook announced they would suspend the media companies from being able to monetise on their platforms, while Twitter is pausing ads in Russia and Ukraine.
It would be impossible to talk about theway the war is being waged online without discussing the growing role of cryptocurrency. The Ukrainian government’s call for donations in crypto has been loudly heard, with over US$18m flooding into the country in the first few days of the conflict to fund Ukraine armed forces.
The country has been accepting donations in Ethereum, bitcoin and Tether. The world’s largest crypto exchange Binance, committed $10m in donations towards Ukraine. In a bid to ensure the western allies’ sanctions against Russia have even more of an impact, Fedorov also called for all major crypto exchanges to block addresses of Russian users.
“It’s crucial to freeze not only the addresses linked to Russian and Belarusian politicians, but also to sabotage ordinary users,” he said in a tweet.
This call, however, has been met with more reluctance. Binance told CNBC it would suspend individuals on the sanction list, but would not go as far as banning all Russian addresses.
“To unilaterally decide to ban people’s access to their crypto would fly in the face of the reason why crypto exists,” the spokesperson said. KuCoin told the outlet it would not do so without a legal requirement, stating it would “impact the rights of innocent people.”
Enter Elon Musk
It wouldn’t be a major online and news event without Elon Musk, for better or worse, and of course it all played out on Twitter.
Fedorov asked for Musk to intervene and provide his satellite Starlink stations to Ukraine. Musk responded quickly that the high-speed internet service was active in the area, and delivered more stations on Monday.
While that has been welcomed by Ukraine, it is worth noting that one Citizen Lab researcher expressed concern that the satellite devices may be used by Russia to track people in Ukraine.
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