Cyber partisans: the hacktivists fighting back against state oppression in Belarus

While states are using the latest digital tools to monitor and cajole their citizens, there is increasing evidence that activists are also turning to the tools of the cyber warfare trade to fight back.

Information and information security have always been a factor in geopolitics, with oppressive state regimes, such as that common in the countries behind the iron curtain, holding an obsessive grip on what people thought and did. In many ways, this has not changed since the inception of the internet and the various digital technologies that have followed from it.

“What Russia is doing now is not novel, as most of their techniques around disinformation go back to the Cold War days,” Siim Kumpas, strategic communication advisor to the Estonian Government Office, says. “The only thing that has changed is the kind of tools states are using to influence their citizens.”

Fighting back

Of course, while states are using the latest digital tools to monitor and cajole their citizens, there is increasing evidence that activists are also turning to the tools of the cyber warfare trade to fight back. For instance, a group known as the Belarus Cyber Partisans have been suggesting that they have hacked into the databases of both the Belarussian police and government to obtain sensitive documents that will help them fight back against the oppressive regime of Alexander Lukashenko, who took power in 1994 and has ruthlessly held onto it ever since.

The group claim that they’ve managed to leak information highlighting the corrupt practices of the police, and indeed that the government has been hiding the true extent of the Covid outbreak in the country. The group says that they have managed to infiltrate most parts of the administration, with the releases thus far just a taster of what is to come. They claim that their aim is to undermine what they regard as a terroristic regime in the country and return Belarus to democratic principles and a more humane rule of law.

The group has managed to achieve the results they have in part because of the help they’ve received from other cyber-activists, who are even believed to be operating from within the law enforcement and intelligence communities in Belarus. Many of these helpers are defectors from the country who left after Lukashenko’s election victory in 2020, which was widely believed to have been fraudulently achieved.

The attacks are notable due to the widespread crackdown in any kind of public opposition to the leadership, with these crackdowns especially violent since the elections in August 2020. The disputed nature of his victory led to numerous public protests against his regime, which were violently crushed. This in turn resulted in yet more opposition as the crackdown on the protests proved to be the tipping point for many Belarussians who had been ambivalent towards the regime until that point.

Digital protest

Research from Fort Hays State University illustrates how such cyberactivism is increasingly playing a role in enacting meaningful change around the world. The paper charts how this movement has grown to utilize all of the digital tools at their disposal, and what started with the utilization of things such as online petitions and social media campaigning has graduated to practices more commonly used by hackers.

“Underresourced and underserved communities historically have been silenced because of a lack of political prowess and access to crucial mobilizing information,” Serena Garcia writes.

“As technology has become more accessible, online communication tools are empowering disparate groups of people across borders and despite regional barriers.”

- Serena Garcia

The growing desire for pushback in Belarus has been met by a robust pool of tech workers who are increasingly willing to put their skills to use to enforce change. Even though many tech workers have fled the country in response to the regime’s behavior, there exists a sufficient army of talent remaining to take cyberactivism in some interesting directions.

This began in September 2020 with the defacement of various government websites, with this initial and very public success not only showing what is possible but publicizing the activities of the group of cyber-dissidents active in the country. The group began to tap into the wisdom of disaffected members of the police and security communities to start researching ways in which they could make a bigger splash.

Driving change

This engagement helped the group to understand the human and digital structures within government, as well as the processes used by key government departments and officials. Indeed, those members of the dissident’s circle that are still active in government have even provided feedback on just how disruptive the attacks have been.

As well as conducting cyberattacks, the group has also been using their hacking skills to conduct various investigations into the activities of the government, with these investigations published in the form of documentaries that have been cited in US congressional hearings. Indeed, the evidence helped to encourage the Americans to introduce sanctions against the government.

Cyberactivism aims to operate on a number of levels, and this new form of hacktivism is no different, with the group striving to undermine the Lukashenko regime at every possible level.

Just as earlier attacks have helped the group to garner support, they hope that their actions will not only highlight the vulnerabilities and actions of the regime but also encourage others to join them in their fight.

“Historically, marginalized and segregated voices have been forced into silence

because of imposed communicative barriers,” Garcia says. “With Internet access, small or marginal groups with limited finances can gain global collective support for their views.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in Belarus. One senses that those forced to live under oppressive regimes are watching the results of their campaign with great interest.