“Be extra careful, don’t get too excited with one successful hack – proper changes take time, consistency, and a lot of effort. Engage with the people you are doing it for, make a coalition with political leaders you trust, and work on the long-lasting strategy that covers many aspects to achieve the desired goals,” said Yuliana Shemetovets, spokesperson for the CyberPartisans.
Hacktivism is a common theme I enjoy revisiting quite frequently in this blog. That is because hackers are often difficult to understand with any sense of absoluteness. One must find a way to penetrate the proverbial smoke and mirrors, and break through the iron walls of what can be described as security-awareness paranoia, in addition to their Machiavellian survival antics.
For what? The goal is to try and catch a glimpse of the person or people existing in secret behind the computer monitor. After all, their plights aren’t always understood, and sometimes there’s more to their operations than what is typically described or even known about among the media. They embody the essence of Enigma, and therefore, can be indecipherable at face value.
But for outsiders looking in, oftentimes it can be difficult to understand what’s going on with any certainty. The media reports information they’re able to glean from available resources, and frequently one side of the story is told. I have been on the unheard side of someone else’s story. For this reason, I have paid special attention to the stories of hackers from all walks of life.
Take, for example, the Belarusian hacktivist group known as the CyberPartisans. Last November, Belarus’s Supreme Court designated the hacktivist group as cyberterrorists. But is that the end of the matter?
Nevertheless, that’s not an unreasonable reaction to pursue on behalf of any government at the receiving end of a powerful hacktivist group, so strongly supported by the people it fights for.
We are not talking about terrorism as it relates to the loss of life by acts of violence here. On the contrary, this is the story of a group of IT specialists who formed a cyber vigilante group in a fight to secure the pursuit of happiness, justice, and equity for the people of Belarus.
“Unfortunately, the regime labeled many opposition movements as terrorist organizations. We are not an exception. Practically, any activist who opposes Lukashenko [Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko] and his people is now under the threat of imprisonment,”
“We do our best not to get caught and understand the risks, but we can’t give up our fight: so many people are still imprisoned and the whole population is basically being held hostages at the expense of one person's wish to stay in power at any cost,” she explained.
A Historic Cyberattack
Their most recent exploit? No, they didn’t shut down or deface some websites, typical of most common garden variety hacktivists. Rather, they broke into the state-run Belarusian Railway systems and encrypted their files with ransomware in an aggressive effort to disrupt the movement of the Russian military from deploying units in their country.
This cyberattack marked the first recorded instance that ransomware was used by hacktivists as a weapon against state forces.
The attack served as an effort to hamper a possible invasion against Ukraine since it is believed that Belarus might serve as a launching pad for a Russian invasion of the bordering country. The CyberPartisans explained, saying, “We don’t want Russian soldiers in Belarus since it compromises the sovereignty of the country and puts it in danger of occupation.”
An Exclusive TCP Handshake
Hacktivists that float around social media tend to sporadically target random government assets in different countries, but the CyberPartisans are spearheading their operations solely within their own country.
They don’t interfere in the affairs of other countries. They collaborate on Telegram, work with different activists and journalists, and recruit help from those who demonstrate they can be trustworthy.
“We are Belarusians and we want to only fix problems in Belarus as much as we can. We have a centralized group and we show consistency, continuity, and engagement with other political organizations that we think bring a number of positive results and make us a true hacktivist movement,”
She explained that the goal of the group is not to change the world, or even to stay an ethical hacker forever. Instead, she clarified that their purpose is to change the dictatorship regime in Belarus, make sure that the county remains intact, and transfer to democratic principles and the rule of law.
After those conditions are achieved, the group hopes to focus on rebuilding the cybersecurity infrastructure of Belarus, as well as the IT sector in general.
“Our end goal is to remove the authoritarian and terroristic regime of Lukashenko. We also want to make sure that the transition period brings democratic changes and restores the rule of law and independent institutions. We will transfer all the databases that are now safely saved on a separate server isolated from the internet to the new democratic government that will be established after the transition period,”
In other words, the buck stops in Belarus. Therefore, their goal isn’t to assist other countries. “We only focus on Belarus, and we don’t interfere in other countries' affairs. We might give some theoretical advice to people trying to do something similar in other dictatorship countries, but we are not planning to participate in any attacks that aim at other states,” Shemetovets further elaborated.
What is especially interesting, the group did not start as a collective of hackers. In fact, they admit that none of them are expert hackers. These were, and still are, IT specialists. But how did a team of IT personnel make the leap into vigilantism? What sparked the transformation?
“When we saw how peaceful protesters were brutally beaten up by special police forces and thousands of people went through torture in prisons, we realized that we need to do something and help people in their resistance against the regime,” Shemetovets said.
She described the Belarusians as very brave and persistent people. But their demands against the current regime were not heard or answered. For this reason, CyberPartisans was formed to represent the interests of the people and to serve as a force when any other means of redress were unheeded.
She also said--
“Our actions help people not to give up, continue their fight and coordinate and protect themselves better. On the other hand, without the great support that we receive from people, it would be also hard for us to continue our work,”
She elaborated further, saying that since the dictator Lukashenko did not leave any other option on how people can freely protest his brutality and illegitimate power, they were forced by virtue of the national predicament to come up with actions that could help reveal the true face of the dictatorship regime and in turn, inspire the people of Belarus.
For example, last year, the hacktivists managed to disrupt the internet streaming news broadcast by the state TV channels “Belarus 1” and “ONT.” They halted the broadcasted interview with the Minister of Health with footage of the militia brutalizing protesters in the streets.
The CyberPartisans consider themselves ethical hackers. They’ve expressed that they do not cause harm to ordinary citizens – only against the State. This means they have their limits to what is not considered an acceptable target.
Shemetovets further states--
“Yes, we are very careful in every operation we conduct. We are always thinking about how our attacks can affect ordinary citizens and do our best to prevent any damage. This doesn't mean ordinary people would never be affected by our operations, but we keep it at an acceptable level,”
One could say that hacking for ethical purposes cannot be confined exclusively by the rule of law, but sometimes, when the circumstances require it, for the sake of conscience.
An article by
Reporting was contributed by
London C. Edwards