The Risks of a Self-Directed, Volunteer Army of Hackers. People from all corners of the world have joined the digital fight between Russia and Ukraine.
A somewhat conventional war is underway in Ukraine, featuring organized and professional soldiers, a chain of command, advanced weapons such as drones and tanks, and state-crafted tactics and strategy. But a parallel war is also taking place, mostly in cyberspace, fueled by foreign volunteers fighting for either Russia or Ukraine. These online volunteer forces are loosely organized and don’t have a chain of command. They have grown exponentially since the war began in February—Ukrainian authorities estimate that some 400,000 hackers from numerous countries have aided the country’s digital fight so far. Several high-profile figures have offered to join the cause: the entrepreneur Elon Musk, for instance, has challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin to a “single combat” duel to decide the fate of Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of people from around the world have begun to engage in cyberwarfare related to the conflict, in an impressive feat of grassroots mobilization.
For those rooting for a besieged country defending its territorial integrity, this arrangement may seem to have no downside: civilians from around the world are volunteering their time and skills to help Ukraine win without expecting remuneration or reward from its government. But there are serious risks involved in waging an informal cyberbattle against Russia, particularly since cyberwarfare may be one of the few remaining tools in the Kremlin’s playbook. This parallel war sets Russia and the West on a collision course—and risks spinning out of control into a chaotic, high-stakes contest that could spread beyond the cyber-domain.
Recognizing the global momentum on its side as people around the world sought to support the Ukrainian defense, the government in Kyiv forged this informal network in the early days of the war.
Victor Zhora, the deputy chief of Ukraine’s information protection service, told Bloomberg News Quint in early March that volunteers had been working on tasks ranging from gathering intelligence to attacking Russian military systems.
Retired Major General Gunnar Karlson, the former chief of Swedish military intelligence: “And receiving such volunteer help is attractive because it brings competence at no cost. For lots of people, hacking for Ukraine in particular is a very attractive alternative to donating money or traveling there to fight. All this is very positive for Ukraine.”
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