People worldwide have sent emails and text messages straight to Russian citizens via 1920.in, a cyber tool to workaround Russia’s internet blockade (1).
Polish programmers created the website after acquiring 20 million phone numbers and nearly 140 million emails from Russian individuals and businesses. The site generates numbers and addresses at random from those records. It allows anyone globally to message them, with the option of sending a pre-written message in Russian that urges people to oppose President Vladimir Putin’s media censorship (2, 3).
According to Squad303, the group that created the cyber tool, thousands of people worldwide, including many in the United States, have used the site to send millions of Russian messages, footage from the conflict, or images of Western media coverage since it was launched on 6th March.
The program is a series of attempts, primarily by Western media organizations and governments, to break through the Putin government’s strict regulations on reporting the conflict.
“Our goal was to break through Putin’s digital censorship wall and ensure that Russians are not completely isolated from the rest of the world,” a Squad303 spokeswoman stated.
The representative, a programmer who requested anonymity, compared the initiative to Cold War-era projects like the US-funded Radio Free Europe, which broadcast radio programs in various languages beyond the Iron Curtain. He added that the website had sent about seven million text messages and two million emails since its launch a week ago.
The group’s name comes from a British air force unit made up of Polish pilots famous for their role in the war against Nazi Germany. The name of the website they designed, 1920.in, refers to the 1920 Soviet-Polish war, outmanned Polish soldiers repelled a Soviet invasion (4).
The Journal examined the code of the webpages as disclosed by the creators and attempted several numbers supplied by the database, all of which were operational. However, it could not determine if the entire database of the cyber tool consisted of existing phone numbers and email addresses.
Russia’s Crackdown on Social Media Platforms
Russian regulators announced on Friday that internet users in the country would be unable to access Instagram because the social media platform is being used to incite violence against the Russian military (5).
In the latest step by Moscow to limit access to foreign social media sites, the communications and media regulator Roskomnadzor said that national access to Instagram would be restricted (6). According to the report, it is disseminating “calls to perform violent crimes against Russian individuals, particularly military personnel.”
Roskomnadzor cited a tweet by Meta spokesman Andy Stone that the organization had “made exemptions for forms of political language that would normally breach our guidelines on violent speech, including ‘death to the Russian invaders (7).’”
Stone’s statement came after Reuters reported that Meta was making a temporary adjustment to its hate speech policy, allowing users in some areas to encourage violence against Russians and the Russian military in the backdrop of the Ukraine incursion on Facebook and Instagram.
Russia has already restricted access to Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms and media outlets.
Meanwhile, major tech companies have prevented Russian official media from spreading any news or information on their platforms (8).
YouTube announced on Friday that it is restricting access to channels affiliated with Russian government media worldwide. It had previously prohibited them across Europe, notably RT and Sputnik.
In a Twitter post, YouTube, which Google owns, announced the change, stating that it will take time for systems to ramp up even though the change is effective immediately. It’s also taking down anything concerning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that “minimizes or trivializes well-documented violent incidents,” according to the company.
YouTube advertisements were previously halted in Russia. It’s now extending it to all ways it generates revenue in Russia on the platform.
According to Meta, Russian official media has also been banned from Instagram and Facebook.
Regardless, the rapid success of the 1920.in cyber tool for communication demonstrates that governments may find it difficult to ban or censor free speech in the future.
Since the military operation commenced, Ukraine has called for pro and amateur programmers to establish an “IT army” to combat Russian cyber-attackers (9).
Hackers arrived from all around the world. They took down Russian and Ukrainian government websites, spray-painted anti-war sentiments on Russian media outlets’ homepages, and exposed data from rival hacking operations. They flocked to chat rooms, eagerly expecting new instructions and encouraging one another.
The conflict in Ukraine has sparked an onslaught of cyberattacks by ostensibly unaffiliated individuals unlike anything seen in previous conflicts, causing widespread disruption, confusion, and chaos, which security experts fear will prompt more serious attacks nation-state hackers, escalate the conflict on the ground, or harm civilians.
“It’s unparalleled,” Matt Olney, director of threat intelligence at Cisco Talos, said (10). “It is not going to be purely a national conflict.” There will be participants who are not subject to any government’s strict regulation.”
Cyberwarfare has blurred the lines between government-backed hackers and patriotic volunteers, making it challenging for authorities to know who is attacking them and how to respond. Both Ukraine and Russia, on the other hand, appeared to have welcomed tech-savvy volunteers, building Telegram channels to direct people to specific websites.
Hackers have already intervened in international crises in locations like Palestine and Syria. However, experts claim that these attempts have drawn fewer people. Hundreds of hackers are now rushing to support their nations, signaling a significant and unpredictable increase in cyberwarfare.
The involvement of volunteer hackers makes determining who is responsible for a cyber attack more challenging. Many of the hackers claimed to be Ukrainians who lived inside and outside Ukraine. Some claimed to be foreign citizens who were merely interested in the turmoil. In several cases, verifying their identities proved impossible.
Ukraine has been more systematic in assembling a volunteer hacking team. Participants in Telegram channels applaud their cooperation with the authorities in pursuing targets like Sberbank, the Russian state-owned bank. Russia hasn’t had any overt demands to action, whose links between the state and hacker groups have long caused concerns among Western officials (11).
A 14-page introduction guide about how people can join, including what software to download to hide their whereabouts and identities, can be found within the primary English-language Telegram page for the IT Army of Ukraine. New targets are added every day, including websites, telecommunications companies, banks, and ATM processors.
However, the greatest worry of military experts and cybersecurity specialists is about Russia launching deadly cyberattacks against essential Ukrainian infrastructure such as energy, government services, and internet access, which have not even occurred yet.
Notably, a series of strikes were launched against Russian targets this week. After being targeted by Ukraine’s volunteer hackers, the country’s major stock exchange, a state-controlled bank, and the Russian Foreign Ministry were forced offline for a period.
According to experts, non-government groups’ participation could quickly escalate and have unexpected repercussions. As happened in a 2017 attack on Ukrainian business and government computer systems, a malware strike on one target can quickly spread and become uncontrollable. Alternatively, a government can see a citizen attack as a state-sponsored attack and choose to respond.
So far, hackers from all over the world have taken down Russian websites, flooded Russian TV and news sites with photos of the invasion, and wreaked havoc on Russian banks and other businesses’ digital infrastructure.
Squad303, the Polish creators of 1920.in, have focused their efforts on interpersonal connection. Millions of unsolicited emails and texts offering an unrestricted view of the Ukraine conflict have been sent to Russian citizens through the site.
Communication Cyber Tool: What Does the Future Hold?
Aside from direct messages, Russia’s internet blockade has increased the use of VPNs, private messaging applications like Signal, Telegram, and Tor web browsers (12).
The top 10 VPN applications have had 1,500% more downloads in the previous 13 days. Signal received a 28 percent increase in downloads, while Telegram received a half-million additional downloads and is now used by over 40 million individuals in Russia (13, 14).
Some digital rights experts argue that people should utilize these technologies for every day, non-subversive internet activity, and potentially subversive ones. Checking mail, accessing streaming movies, and communicating with acquaintances with these technologies makes it more difficult for governments to justify clamping down on them. It can make it more difficult to detect attempts to circumvent official limits on speech and access.
“The more regular users adopt censorship-resistant cyber tools for everyday activities such as accessing movies, the better,” remarked John Scott-Railton, a security and misinformation researcher at the Citizen Lab at The University of Toronto (15).
Millions of Russians gained internet literacy due to the restriction, learning new techniques and cyber tool to circumvent Russia’s existing rigorous rules.
Squad303 established a precedent by providing a clear line of communication to ordinary Russians, implying that regimes that restrict the sharing of information will face greater challenges in the future.
We believe that in the future, we may see the use of a cyber tool like 1920.in to reach people in nations with similar tight regulations, such as Iran, Turkey, North Korea, or by citizens in these countries.