Russian and Ukrainian websites have fallen victim to cyber-attacks in the midst of the Russian invasion of Ukraine as hundreds of thousands of civilians flee while Ukrainian cities are hit by missiles and Russian military forces. Reuters reports that internet users in both countries have seen a surge in downloads of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) as internet users attempt to get around restricted access to foreign social media or news. VPNs encrypt data and hide where a user is located, making it imperative during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Data from Top10VPN shows a 354% increase in Russia on Sunday in comparison to February 16th-23rd.
In Moscow, access to some foreign social media like Facebook and Twitter is being restricted. Photos and videos are slow to load on these platforms and are targeted by state communications regulator Roskomnadzor. The agency has a history of restricting the internet which they say mainly aims to restrict harmful content like drug use and suicide but has been abused to censor criticism of the government or local administrations.
Russia banned several VPNs last year but failed to block them entirely. “VPN demand surged in Russia as authorities restricted Facebook and Twitter over the weekend in a bid to control the flow of information from its invasion of Ukraine,” Top10VPN said. Russia has called its actions a “special operation.” It invaded Ukraine on February 24th from all sides: land, sea, and air, sending missiles and soldiers to capture cities resulting in a large number of civilian casualties and many more displaced or waiting to enter neighboring countries.
VPN demand increased February 15th because of cyberattacks, just days before the invasion. Russian hackers were also blamed for these attacks that made Ukrainian banking and government websites go offline. Russia has denied involvement in these attacks. Russian media outlets on Monday were hacked and replaced by anti-war messages and calls to stop Putin’s invasion.
Atlas VPN claimed installs have risen 1,906% as users look to ensure that they have unrestricted internet access. Some VPN providers are offering free cybersecurity tools to journalists currently working in Ukraine in an attempt to allow media to report in the country during the invasion. ProtonVPN said they would donate 10% of their revenue from new subscriptions for VPN or ProtonMail accounts. ExpressVPN tweeted about Press Room, their project open to journalists for civic society and nonprofit organizations seeking safe internet connections. Other organizations are providing more bandwidth data from free plans. Bitdefender, a VPN and antivirus software, is working with Romania’s National Cyber Security Directorate (DNSC) to provide free cybersecurity expertise and technology to people supporting Ukrainians and allies. Runa Sandvik, U.S. computer security expert, is offering digital safety tools to journalists reporting from Ukraine at no cost.
Microsoft’s Digital Defense Report last October reported that 58% of all cyberattacks from nation-states came from Russia. This is a 50% increase from the previous year in actions targeting government intelligence-gathering agencies. The U.S., U.K., and Ukraine were the countries most affected by these attacks. Days before the first Russian missiles hit Ukrainian cities, NetBlocks, an internet watchdog, confirmed loss of connectivity to Ukraine’s State Savings Bank and the Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Networks.
The IT Army of Ukraine is a group of hackers fighting back against cyberattacks as well. Volunteers are distributing targets and tasks on the Telegram channel, Forbes reported. Hacktivist group Anonymous has also declared war on the Kremlin, spreading messages on several media websites and TV channels.
In order to peacefully reach a resolution to this conflict, journalists in Ukraine and around the world need to repost photos and videos they see on social media in case they may be taken down due to cyberattacks. The efforts of the media are crucial in this conflict as well as the efforts of normal internet users.