How Ukraine is harnessing the power of the IT crowd to defend itself

In times of war, countries conscript their citizens to fight for them. In extraordinary circumstances, they also conscript volunteers from far abroad. And since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, both have been seen – both on the ground and in cyberspace.

Faced with the imminent threat of wipeout, Ukraine began to ask for all healthy men to stay and fight the invading Russian army on the ground. They also relied on volunteer forces arriving into the country from abroad who were willing to fight for them against the invaders.

But simultaneous to the offline conflict going on, there have been similar recruitment drives online. First, there’s the interior, built-in expertise: Ukraine has 290,000 people who work in IT and acts as the world’s outsourcing tech desk, with major international companies employing Ukrainians to develop and maintain their apps. It’s because of the strong pedigree of Ukraine’s technical universities, and their ability to understand computing in a way few others do.

A volunteer army of hundreds of thousands

But even those nearly 300,000 people aren’t enough to try and tackle the might of Russia’s cyber warfare divisions, supported by official funding from the army and Kremlin. Handily, there were plenty of people willing to help. Hundreds of thousands of people heeded the call from Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s Vice Prime minister and minister for digital transformation.

Two days after Russia invaded, on 26 February, Fedorov posted a link to a Telegram group on Twitter. The Telegram account was an unusual innovation: set up by his ministerial department, it was designed to corral support and target it towards Ukraine, directing a cyber army of hackers to try and deplete Russia’s cyber defenses. “We need digital talents,” Fedorov said. “There will be tasks for everyone.”

And there has been. Every day since the group was set up, there have been orders issued by the administrators, asking the volunteer hackers to try and do everything from DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks to targeted strikes against key elements of infrastructure. The overall goal is a simple but effective one: to swarm the enemy with so many problems that they spend more time trying to swat off those attacks than launch their own against Ukraine.

Footsoldiers from all over the world

The army of foot soldiers comes from all over the world and from all sorts of backgrounds. They’re old and young, highly skilled and amateur hobbyist hackers alike. While some are on the offensive against Russia, launching attacks or simply allowing their computing power to be co-opted, others are focused more on preservation than destruction. The ArchiveTeam Warrior project is trying desperately to download the entire contents of Ukraine’s internet in case Russia tries to permanently take it offline – offering a backup that can be restored at any point it needs to.

The volunteer IT army – whether on the offensive or defensive – meets a simple need and hits at a core quality of many individuals, says Dan Jerker B Svantesson at Bond University, Australia. “In an interconnected world, volunteers who are unwilling or unable to physically help Ukraine could potentially join its cyber militia.” Few people are willing to travel to Ukraine and fight on the front line physically, for fear of being shot at or killed. But they may be willing to lend their hacking capabilities from behind their desk.

Ukraine has managed to harness the power of the crowd to defend itself and to keep Russia on its own toes. The legality of it is hotly disputed, and there are arguments that members of Ukraine’s volunteer IT army are making themselves enemy combatants, and fair game for reprisals from Russia. But when the future of the world is at stake, many have decided they have no other choice – and are fighting the good fight.