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Hackers can win $100k for helping Ukraine bring down Russian websites

A cybersecurity company wants to create a "decentralised cyber army" from around the world

By Eanna Kelly and Steph Bailey

Cyber Unit cofounder Yegor Aushev. Source: Prozzo

A global “hackathon” calling for volunteers to help expose Russian software vulnerabilities got underway at 4am this morning (2am GMT), as Ukraine’s frantic defence against Moscow took its latest unconventional turn. 

Kyiv-based cybersecurity company Cyber Unit Technologies is organising the giant hacker effort, promising a $100k bounty payable in cryptocurrency to the best online attacks against Russian websites (the firm is also calling for donations to grow the reward pot). 

The global competition — dubbed “Fuck Hack Russia” — is the latest in an unprecedented cyber effort to repel Moscow’s army, which continues to shell Ukrainian cities this week. 

Hackathon organiser and Cyber Unit cofounder Yegor Aushev called it a “decentralised cyber army [drawn] from the whole world”. He says over 500 people — including Ukrainians who work in the country’s technology sector and outsiders — have come forward so far to volunteer.

“We are ghosts”

This follows the highly unusual call on Saturday by Ukrainian vice prime minister Mykhailo Fedorov for global volunteers to form an “IT Army”. Fedorov said that the army would be organising on encrypted messaging app Telegram, where volunteers would be able to complete “operational tasks”. 

This makeshift effort, which appears to have its own Twitter account, is openly calling for hackers to work with the international Anonymous group to attack software bugs in Russian systems. 

“We are ghosts attacking Russia and Russian occupiers” 

Some hacking groups are claiming early wins. The Ukrainians have received support from a group of Belarusian activists called the Cyber-Partisans. This group says its cyberattack on Belarus’s train network on Sunday disrupted Russian troop movements into Ukraine (Sifted could not independently verify the group’s claim). A spokesperson for Cyber-Partisans says it is “trying to coordinate all the Ukrainian cyber groups [via a] safe means of communication”.

Other hacking groups include the Georgian Hackers Society, whose members are swapping disruption tips on social hub Discord. “We are ghosts attacking Russia and Russian occupiers,” one anonymous member tells Sifted. 

Impact uncertain

Tanya Lokot, an associate professor at Dublin City University who specialises in protest and digital rights issues in eastern Europe, tells Sifted that Ukraine’s “long-standing tradition of organising and activism” was helping to fuel this “Herculean effort”. 

Their connections with the western tech community are also proving useful, she adds. “Ukrainian IT professionals work closely with or in many western markets so there are pre-existing networks there.”

“In the public eye Russian state institutions have been dealt a major blow and perceptions matter”

“At a time when many feel an overwhelming sense of helplessness, takedowns and hack-backs have become an outlet for those emotions,” says Alp Toker, director of NetBlocks, a watchdog that monitors cybersecurity. It’s less clear how effective the community-driven cyberattacks will be at slowing the Russian war machine, he adds, “but in the public eye Russian state institutions have been dealt a major blow and perceptions matter”.

“To be honest, we’re not really sure what we are seeing [from the IT army],” says cybersecurity researcher and consultant Lukasz Olejnik, who previously advised the International Committee of the Red Cross. “How to verify the legitimacy of campaigns or their capabilities is a difficult issue. It is unclear if cyber operations done in such ways may really be impactful.”

Read: How the tech community can help Ukraine

At the very least, the defensive cyberattacks will “certainly cause annoyance and frustration,” says Tim Stevens, director of the Cyber Security Research Group at King’s College London. “What we have not seen so obviously [before] is [the] mobilisation of domestic hacker and IT communities in defence of a sovereign nation.”

For the next week, 50% of Sifted’s membership revenue will be donated to The Kyiv Independentone of Ukraine’s leading English language media outlets, to support its work. You can also donate directly to The Kyiv Independent.

Eanna Kelly is a contributing editor at Sifted. He tweets from @EannaKelly1

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