Unexpected failure of Russian hackers and Ukraine’s ascendant IT expertise

24 December 2022, 12:15 AM
In 2022, the world learned that it had overestimated the power and influence of Russian hackers (Photo:NV)

In 2022, the world learned that it had overestimated the power and influence of Russian hackers (Photo:NV)

The ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war is the first major interstate conflict of the digital age. NV has prepared some coverage of how Ukraine has adapted to the demands of the digital world and uses modern technology to bring its victory closer.

Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks on Russian websites

In the first days of the full-scale invasion, Ukrainians immediately came to the defense of their country. Some volunteered to fight at the front, other signed up for territorial defense units, while many did all they could to keep the military and civilian population supplied with everything they needed – there were many ways to help.

Video of day

One of them was proposed by Ukrainian IT professions who were actively developing software that allowed anyone join in the effort to crash Russian websites in a wave of DDoS attacks.

Denial of Service attacks are some of the simplest types of hacking attacks; their main goal is to shut down the targeted website by flooding it with an unmanageable volume of requests.

Thus, at the beginning of the invasion, Ukrainian users “killed” the websites of Russia’s Sberbank, the Kremlin, Rosneft, Roskomnadzor, mass media, and many others.

Diya, eVorog and other digital services

Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation joined the work right away. Its head, Mykhailo Fedorov, wrote to Elon Musk and asked him for Starlink terminals, launched a massive online campaign calling on businesses to abandon Russia, and announced the creation of the Ukrainian IT army – which anyone could join, from professional programmers to ordinary users.

The eVorog (Ukrainian for ‘e-Enemy’) chatbot for Telegram was launched shortly. It can be used to report the location and movement of Russian troops, provoding the Ukrainian military with nearly real-time battlefield intelligence. Over 430,000 messages were sent to the bot in 2022.

In addition, there were some major updates to Ukraine’s Diya e-governance app. According to the ministry, more than 35 new services have been added to the app a this year, including the UNITED24 fundraising platform, military bonds purchases, internally displaced persons registration, state financial aid applications, and reporting damaged or destroyed property.

Hacker wars

The war in Ukraine has shown that at least two things, which were previously widely accepted, have been overestimated.

First, the role of cyberattacks in modern warfare. Previously, it was believed that it will only grow due to increasing globalization, dominance of services online, cloud computing, and other modern technologies.

Naturally, adversarial hackers can pose a considerable threat. They can steal valuable information and significantly affect the operation of a given company or organization. Nevertheless, hacker attacks are not some wonder weapon that will seriously affect a country’s defense capabilities.

From the first days of the war, the Anonymous group supported Ukraine, after which the world’s best hackers began assaulting the websites of the Russian government, companies, and media. Among their victims are some major companies like Sberbank, Yandex, and Gazprom. By late April, hackers leaked about 5.8 TB of data from Russian sources. However, this is only the first step – it will take a lot of time to process such a large amount of information.

Secondly, Russia’s cyber warfare capabilities have clearly been overestimated.

Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Moscow succeeded in one serious online special operation — the hacking of Viasat satellite provider, which was used by the Ukrainian military. Viktor Zhora, deputy head of the State Special Communications Service, said that “it was a really huge loss of communication at the very beginning of the war.”

This was the first and only major success of enemy hackers.

The Starlink factor

These days, Elon Musk is largely talked about as an eccentric entrepreneur who bought Twitter and keeps posting rather bizarre messages on a variety of topics – from foreign affairs to COVID-19 policy.

At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, he was probably the main foreign hero for Ukrainians. Musk was one of the first to respond to their calls for help, and his company SpaceX began sending more and more batches of Starlink satellite terminal to Ukraine. This allowed the military, government, and rescue services to remain online and coordinate their work at most critical times – under the influence of Russian radio jammers and attacks on critical infrastructure.

Unsurprisingly, this rather irked Moscow. Russian state media even suggested that Starlink satellites could become “legitimate targets” for the Russian Armed Forces.

However, the matter did not go beyond some hot air – Starlink continues to work in Ukraine, and is now actively used by civilians who use satellite internet to continue working in during power cuts.

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Emergent software

During this year, Ukrainian developers created dozens of new app aimed at helping people. Obvious examples are the Air Alert app or eAlert – which lets people know when the government issues an air raid alert, urging civilians to take cover in bomb shelters – but we want to mention others as well.

For example, in TacticMedAid, you can get instructions on providing first aid — both for civilians and the military.

The ePPO app allows Ukrainians to inform air defense forces about incoming airborne targets. Many low-altitude missiles and drones can evade radar detection, but people in different regions of the country can spot them with a naked eye and make corresponding reports though the app.

In the Lepta app, you can leave your requests or respond to other people’s requests for help of various kinds: from buying certain products to locating family member and raising funds for troops at the front.

The TyKhto (WhoAreYou) app was created to quickly identify people at checkpoints or during curfew. The app allows the user to check passport data of a person, whether he is wanted or on the list of known Russian collaborators. The developers assure that the program works with open databases and registries and does not collect personal data.

Earlier, NV wrote about Tribefy – an app for finding compatriots abroad who can help refugees with housing, work, or solving some other household issues.

Ukrainian startups are moving into military-tech

Before the start of the full-scale invasion, Ukraine was significantly behind the rest of the world in terms of how centralized and ossified its defense contractor market was. Due to the war, the demand for new weapons and technology has increased dramatically, which allows startups to fill this niche and meet the needs of the military more quickly.

Currently, there are no conditions in Ukraine for small companies to enter the market and drive significant change on their own. The Ukrainian army system, despite many improvements, is still largely outdated in many respects — and this is especially true at the legal level, which makes it much more difficult for small businesses to break into the defense industry.

The army is an extremely complex system that has been built up for a very long time, and therefore it takes time to change its mentality, the mentality of the officers and generals. However, the war gave a second chance to startups that had previously struggled for funding – and now their development is moving ahead.

Ukraine is among the top 10 countries in the world in terms of technological skills and knowledge base, and the realities of the war only confirmed this result. The IT industry has become one of the few industries that continues to work at almost full capacity and support the country’s economy. International partners continue to believe in the Ukrainian IT market and technology companies, increasing their readiness to further invest in the expansion of the startup ecosystem.

We now have a unique opportunity to catch up with the Western world in the arms industry, and Ukraine is gradually beginning to move in this direction.

Digital technology will help identify and find Russian war criminals

Technology has transformed our lives — and now the time has come for it to help bring Russian criminals to justice for what they did in Ukraine.

Proving war crimes is a very difficult task. Now all the world leaders declare that the atrocities committed by the Russians in Ukraine are war crimes, but the legal basis is not always solid enough to bring to justice even some of the detained suspects.

In addition to the problem of gathering direct and circumstantial evidence, there are also numerous legal delays that allow murderers to avoid a fair trial.

That’s exactly why the authors of the Starling Lab project, which is supported by Stanford University and the University of Southern California, plan to use, blockchain technology to guarantee the preservation of evidence of Russian crimes in Ukraine. This will prevent the work of Russian propaganda, which usually successfully whitewashes its terrorists, flooding the discussion of a certain topic with fake reports and disinformation, blurring the lines between half-truths and outright lies.

In addition, the Ministry of Statistics actively uses artificial intelligence to identify killed Russian soldiers, and search for war criminals who rob, rape, and kill Ukrainians.

Ensuring this kind of digital evidence is admissible in court will be very difficult. However, Mykhailo Fedorov, who leads Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation, believes that “after this war, we will be able to change international justice norms.”

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