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Hacking a Revolution

Ukraine-protest
Ukrainian protesters. (Credit: Ryan Anderson. Used under Creative Commons
CC-BY-SA-3.0 license.)

In April 2005, General Boris Miroshnikov, head of the Russian police’s cybercrime division (Department К for “Кибер” or “Cyber”), announced that Russian hackers were the “best in the world.”  At DEF CON 13 that year, I explained how Soviet scientists had honed their reverse engineering skills on Western products for decades during the Cold War. More recently, Western reporting such as Tom Kellermann’s “Peter the Great versus Sun Tzu” and FireEye’s “World War C” suggests that Eastern European hackers are still more advanced and stealthy than their peers around the world. Ukraine was even called the world’s newest “haven for hackers.”

So, given the current political crisis in Ukraine, it seems like a good time to ask, what role is there for computer hackers in political revolutions? And could computer hacking play a decisive role in this would-be revolution? If we assume that there are two basic antagonists in this struggle – the government and the protesters – which side benefits the most from the existence of a strong hacker culture?

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Ukrainian protester. (Credit: Alexandra Nessa Gnatoush. Used under Creative Commons CC-BY-2.0 license.)

On one hand, Kiev has a central government. Through the leverage it has over telecommunications companies and Internet Service Providers (ISP) for law enforcement and counterintelligence, the government has several advantages: censorship (as in China), intimidation (as in Russia), and surveillance (as in the USA). Together, these digital tools form a powerful bulwark against a grassroots Ukrainian revolution.

On the other hand, within civil society, computer programmers and hackers have traditionally been closely associated with freedom of information and freedom of expression — characteristics that are diametrically opposed to absolute government control. Not surprisingly, Ukrainian hackers are fighting back.

What will happen in Ukraine? My own opinion is that, in the long run, the Internet is by the people and for the people. It is simply too big and too dynamic for the government to control, and it will make countless contributions to better government worldwide. But the future is unknown, and many governments have other plans. Therefore, although the most extreme political crisis and information war are today happening in Kiev, we should all take a keen interest in what happens there, because it is likely to affect us — one way or another.

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About Kenneth Geers

Kenneth Geers (PhD, CISSP) is a Senior Global Threat Analyst at FireEye. Dr. Geers spent twenty years in the U.S. Government, with lengthy tours at NSA, NCIS, and NATO. Kenneth was the first U.S. Representative to the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Estonia and is the author of "Strategic Cyber Security", Editor of "The Virtual Battlefield: Perspectives on Cyber Warfare", Technical Expert for the "Tallinn Manual on the International Law Applicable to Cyber Warfare", and author of more than twenty articles and chapters on cyber conflict. Follow him on Twitter @KennethGeers.