Volunteer hackers form ‘IT Army’ to help Ukraine fight Russia: NPR

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NPR’s Danielle Kurtzleben speaks with Dina Temple-Raston, host of the Click here Podcast about an international effort involving hackers to fight the Russian invasion of Ukraine online.



DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

Volunteers from around the world have formed a new cyber army to help repel the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The so-called IT army is supported by the government but is led almost exclusively by civilians.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE PODCAST, “CLICK HERE”)

JANI: When I started hearing about civilians and children and women and elderly people being bombed or being killed or being starved to death, I basically decided I had to do something.

KURTZLEBEN: This is a member of the IT Army speaking to journalist Dina Temple-Raston on a recent episode of “Click Here,” a podcast on all things cyber and intelligence. Dina Temple-Raston is here to tell us more about Ukraine’s Cyber ​​Army. Dina, welcome.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Thank you.

KURTZLEBEN: Of course. As we have just heard, you have spoken to a member of this Ukrainian army. What did he tell you about how this group came about?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, it’s a very modern story, isn’t it? Telegram, this encrypted messaging app, has been called to arms. And they kind of built this force because Ukraine was dealing with Russian hacking for years. So there was such a thing as people in Ukraine who were professionals who were really good at hacking or defense. And what they didn’t really expect was when they issued that call to arms – and it was actually the Ukrainian government that issued that call to arms. What they didn’t expect was how much the world would react to it. And we basically spoke to the guy in charge of the country’s cybersecurity. And he claims that they have, you know, half a million people willing to try and help with that.

KURTZLEBEN: So when they do that kind of gun call and get that big response, all of these people who respond are going to go through some kind of vetting? Is there a screening for hacking skills?

TEMPLE RASTON: No. I mean, that’s the really good question, right? So there is something on the internet that is known as script kiddies – kiddies like children as opposed to kittens. And script kiddies are basically people who copy other people’s code and talk big and have a lot of bragging rights. And the tape that you played, that was Jani, a guy from Finland, and he said that’s one of the really big problems, that there’s no verification, and you end up getting a lot of wannabe hackers who don’t do that really know what they’re doing. And as a result, it causes many problems.

Jani said there was one instance where he was actually on an admin page of a major website in Russia. And he was about to go in and actually exploit the site — you know, go in there, look at the network, and so on, and so on. And then all of a sudden there was an attack from all these script kiddies that took down the system. They basically launched a DDoS attack, a distributed denial of service attack. You just ask a server to do a few things and it gets overloaded, then crashes. So Jani did something important. A denial of service attack doesn’t really matter. It’s just an irritant. And, boom, because there was no real verification and no real organization, it kind of defeated what a real pro was trying to do.

KURTZLEBEN: And by and large what has the IT army achieved so far?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Difficult to say. I mean, some of her hacks were kinda cute. You know, one — an Anonymous hack, for example — kind of hooked up with the IT army. Instead of having restaurant reviews like for the Russian equivalent of Yelp, they put news clips of what’s going on on the front lines in place of the reviews, right? So many people died. This city has not fallen. It’s happening – really happening in Ukraine.

And then there was a Polish group called Squad 303, and somehow they hacked and got all these cell phone numbers and email addresses from regular Russians. And they set up a site that you could actually go to and message ordinary Russians telling them the truth about the war.

So those are the things they do that don’t — you know, it’s not electric, but it’s irritants, right? And hackers are nothing if not annoying. And what some officials here in the US believe is that this is happening because the Russian hacking teams have so much to defend that they are somehow having a harder time conducting any type of offensive or operations against Ukraine that they might otherwise be planning would have done.

KURTZLEBEN: I want to play another clip from your interview with one of the volunteers when you asked him what precedent this type of action sets.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE PODCAST, “CLICK HERE”)

UNKNOWN PERSON: Honestly I think it puts a good President because at the end of the day we’ve been saying for a while that we believe now more than ever civilians need to learn how not just to defend themselves but fight at the cyber front.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yeah, that’s a guy we spoke to from Texas who’s part of the Ukrainian IT Army. And I would say that’s sort of an individual opinion. I don’t think most people think that’s a good idea. I mean, if you think about it, you’re suddenly training a lot of people who might have been OK in cyber. They bring them all together and teach them new skills. And when the war is finally over, what will they do with all these new abilities? Are we actually training a whole new cohort of hackers? I mean, they’re breaking a US law anyway. You don’t hack here. They hack somewhere else. But if they did that in the US, they would be violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, right? So it’s going to be really interesting. I spoke to lawyers about this and they said, well, I don’t really think there’s going to be too many people who are going to press charges against people who are trying to help Ukraine against the Russians. But it sets a really disturbing precedent.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. And to give people new tools and to say: We hope that you will use these new tools for good.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. I mean, there’s an old saying in hacking that the difference between a black hat hacker – a bad hacker – and a white hat hacker – a good hacker – is intent, not skill.

KURTZLEBEN: To zoom out here, how does Ukrainian cyberwarfare compare to the Russian effort at this point?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, that’s hard to say, isn’t it? I mean, one of the things that we found really interesting was that Russian hackers have this amazing reputation, right? You hacked into Estonia’s power grid. They hacked into Ukraine’s power grid. We just found out this week that the White House revealed that they hacked into the US power grid. So there is a feeling that they are 10 feet tall. But what we’re learning is that they’re 10 feet tall when they have a lot of time to plan, but they’re not as creative or intuitive or nimble when they’re hit by something they’re not expecting.

The best that has come out of all this is perhaps not so much that the Ukrainian IT army hacked Russia in such a way that things were materially changed there. Instead, they somehow exposed the weaknesses of the Russian cyber army, just as the invasion of Ukraine showed us that this 10 foot, we thought, Russian army might actually not be as good as we thought.

KURTZLEBEN: That was Dina Temple-Raston. She is the host of the “Click Here” podcast. Dina Temple-Raston, thank you very much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: With pleasure. Many Thanks.

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