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How the battle between Russia and Ukraine has developed in cyberspace


While Russian soldiers push towards Kyiv, the battle in cyberspace has become increasingly chaotic. NPR cybersecurity correspondent Jenna McLaughlin reports on how a volunteer Ukrainian cyber army plus hacktivists and cybercriminals are joining the fight.

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: In normal times, Yegor Aushev is a well-known entrepreneur in Ukraine. He studied physics before founding several companies. But on February 24, he started building a makeshift Ukrainian cyber army.

YEGOR AUSHEV: So from minus two floor from my parking garage, I started, actually.

MCLAUGHLIN: In a concrete parking garage in central Kyiv, as he listened to explosions rock the pre-dawn streets above, he got to work. He reached out to his contacts at the Ministry of Defense. He called trusted friends, posted across social media and drafted a Google sign-up sheet.

AUSHEV: OK, I'm collecting the people who want to be volunteers.

MCLAUGHLIN: People flocked to answer Aushev. I talked to a Ukrainian tech expert living in Germany who signed up, and I texted with a lawyer who had hoped to enroll in cybersecurity classes in the fall. She pitched her services fighting disinformation in her hometown of Zaporizhzhia. She has been hiding in the basement with her daughter during increasingly destructive Russian attacks.

AUSHEV: And more and more bombs were coming to our cities, and I made a call to action for everyone. Like, all hackers who support freedom, please help us to hack Russia.

MCLAUGHLIN: To hack Russia - as the attacks escalated, Aushev posted a new call on Facebook offering $100,000 to people who shared information about how to breach Russian systems; like a bug bounty where companies pay people to find mistakes in the code so they can fix them but in reverse. Aushev has also been in touch with some so-called hacktivists who have been supporting Ukraine, including the infamous collective Anonymous, as well as a grassroots resistance group in Belarus called the Cyber-Partisans.

YULIANA SHEMETOVETS: Hi, my name is Yuliana, and I am the spokesperson for Cyber-Partisans. So in their recent attack, Cyber-Partisans aimed at the railways.

MCLAUGHLIN: These groups have boasted about defacing Russian media sites, about stealing sensitive information on the invading Russian military forces, even breaking into Russian infrastructure. Meanwhile, some ransomware gangs known to cooperate with the Russian government have said they defend the Kremlin. It's complete chaos and, at this point, tough to verify what's real and what isn't.

MATT OLNEY: This is insane.

MCLAUGHLIN: Matt Olney, the head of threat intelligence at cybersecurity firm Cisco, is really worried about a bunch of amateurs, full of righteous anger, doing real damage, especially to civilians.

OLNEY: It's a really dangerous time right now because most of these people don't know what they're doing, and somebody at some point is going to get lucky and hit something important.

MCLAUGHLIN: Olney means hitting water or gas - things that civilians need as much as the military. Then it's anyone's bet how Russia reacts. But for many Ukrainians, they can't imagine things becoming much worse.

JAANIKA MERILO: How can we escalate even more when someone is actually threatening us with nukes?

MCLAUGHLIN: Jaanika Merilo, an adviser to the Ukrainian Ministry of Digital Transformation, is terrified by a nuclear power menacing Ukraine, and she'll welcome anything to help defend her homeland. The Ukrainian government appears to be supporting that position. Different agencies, including the Ukrainian cyber police, have amplified calls for hackers to target Russia, but it's impossible to say what could happen if the conflict in cyberspace really spins out of control.

MERILO: It's been like, thank God the communications are not down.

MCLAUGHLIN: Russia hasn't shut off communications or power in Ukraine yet, to the surprise of many cyber experts, but that doesn't mean it can't. And Putin has hinted he'll launch cyberattacks beyond Ukraine's borders. Meanwhile, Yegor Aushev, the leader of Ukraine's cyber army, says he doesn't want to start a new trend in guerrilla cyber operations.

AUSHEV: I don't want to create some army. I hope it will, like, finish soon.

MCLAUGHLIN: What Aushev says he really wants is to get back to normal life. As we spoke, telegram notifications kept sounding. He sighed with fatigue more than once.

AUSHEV: This war will stop. It will be stopped so that - together with international partners, we will, like, force this crazy guy to stop this war.

MCLAUGHLIN: Jenna McLaughlin, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBO BAND'S "AND LAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.