Since declaring “cyber war” on President Vladimir Putin in retaliation for the invasion of Ukraine, the Anonymous hacktivist collective has been bombarding Russia with cyber-attacks. Several members of the group spoke about their motivations, tactics, and plans.
An Anonymous hack on Russian TV networks stands out among all the cyber-attacks carried out since the Ukraine conflict began.
The hack was captured in a short video clip that shows regular programming interrupted by images of bombs exploding in Ukraine and soldiers discussing the horrors of the conflict.
On February 26th, the video went viral after being shared by anonymous social media accounts with millions of followers. One post read, “JUST IN: #Russian state TV channels have been hacked by #Anonymous to broadcast the truth about what happens in #Ukraine.”
It racked up millions of views in no time.
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The stunt has all of the characteristics of an Anonymous hack: it’s dramatic, impactful, and easy to share online. It was also difficult to verify, as were many of the group’s other cyber-attacks.
However, one of the smaller groups of Anonymous hackers claimed responsibility and claimed to have taken over TV services for 12 minutes.
The first person who shared the video was also able to confirm that it was genuine. Eliza is American, but her father is Russian, and when his TV shows were interrupted, he called her. “When it happened, my father called me and said, ‘Oh my God, they’re telling the truth!’ So I had him record it, and then I uploaded the video to YouTube. He claims that one of his friends witnessed the incident as well.”
The Russian company that runs the hacked services, Rostelecom, has yet to respond to requests for comment.
The hackers justified their actions by claiming that civilians in Ukraine were being slaughtered. “If nothing is done to restore peace in Ukraine,” they added, “we will intensify our attacks on the Kremlin.”
Although Anonymous claims to have taken down Russian websites and stolen government data, Lisa Forte, a partner at cyber-security firm Red Goat, says the majority of these attacks have been “quite basic” so far.
DDoS attacks, in which a server is overwhelmed by a flood of requests, have been the most common method used by hackers, she said. These are simple to carry out and only take websites offline for a short period of time.
“However, the TV hack is incredibly creative, and I would think quite difficult to pull off,” she said.
Who are Anonymous?
- The hacktivist collective first appeared on the website 4chan in 2003.
- “We are legion” is the tagline of the group, which has no leadership.
- Anyone can claim to be a member of the group and hack for whatever reason they want, but they usually target organizations accused of abusing their power.
- A Guy Fawkes mask is their symbol, which was made famous by Alan Moore’s graphic novel V for Vendetta, in which an anarchist revolutionary overthrows a corrupt fascist government.
- The group has numerous social media accounts, with 15.5 million Twitter followers alone.
Russian websites have also been defaced by anonymous hackers. According to Forte, this entails gaining control of a website in order to alter the content displayed.
So far, the attacks have caused disruption and embarrassment, but since the invasion, cyber-experts have become increasingly concerned about the rise in hacktivism.
They are concerned that a hacker may inadvertently disable a hospital’s computer network or disrupt critical communication links.
Emily Taylor of the Cyber Policy Journal says, “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“These attacks do pose a threat. They could lead to an escalation, or someone could inadvertently harm a vital aspect of civilian life.”
This is the most active Anonymous has been in years. Until Russia invaded his country, Roman, a Ukrainian tech entrepreneur who leads a group of hackers known as Stand for Ukraine, had no ties to the organization.
However, he told me that when he and his team briefly defaced the Russian state news agency Tass’s website with an anti-Putin poster, they included an Anonymous logo.
Roman coordinates his team’s creation of websites, Android apps, and Telegram bots to aid Ukraine’s war effort and hack Russian targets from his sixth-floor apartment in Kyiv.
“I’m ready to go pick up a rifle for Ukraine, but my skills are better suited to the computer at the moment. So, with my two laptops in hand, I’m coordinating this IT resistance from the comfort of my own home.”
He claims that his group took down a Russian regional train ticket service for several hours, but the BBC has not been able to confirm this.
“These things are illegal and wrong until there is a threat to you or your relative,” he defends his actions.
Another hacking group that has merged with Anonymous is Squad 303, which is named after a famous Polish fighter squadron from WWII.
“We constantly collaborate with Anonymous, and I now consider myself a member of the Anonymous movement,” says one of the members, who goes by the name of WW2 pilot Jan Zumbach.
He didn’t want his picture taken, but a Ukrainian member of his team sent a photo of himself wearing a helmet and mask. “During the day, I’m on the barricade with a rifle, and at night, I’m hacking with the Squad/Anonymous,” he said.
Squad 303 has created a website that allows members of the public to send text messages to random Russian phone numbers informing them of the war’s truth. More than 20 million SMS and WhatsApp messages are said to have been sent through their platform.
This, according to two Anonymous groups I spoke with, is the most significant thing the collective has done for Ukraine thus far.
When asked how he justified the Squad’s illegal activity, Jan Zumbach claimed that they did not steal or share any private information and that they were only trying to communicate with Russians in order to win the information war.
He did say, however, that they were planning a more significant hack in the coming days.
Attacks on Ukraine are also being carried out by vigilante groups in Russia, albeit on a smaller scale.
Since January, Ukraine has been subjected to three major waves of coordinated DDoS attacks, as well as three incidents of more serious “wiper” attacks that erased data from a small number of Ukrainian computer systems.
Following an apparent hack, a manipulated video of President Zelensky appeared on the Ukraine 24 TV channel’s website on Wednesday.
However, in today’s environment, determining who is behind any given cyber-attack is difficult.
“Anon2World, a long-time Anonymous hacker, says that the Achilles heel of Anonymous is that anyone can claim to be Anonymous, including state actors working against what we’re fighting for.”
“With our current popularity, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that there will be obvious government repercussions. We’re used to chaos, especially online, so adding to it isn’t a problem.”
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