Hacking + Ridiculing Russia's Leaders — and Getting Away With It
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Even ruthless autocrats can’t protect themselves from hacking and electronic eavesdropping, and the embarrassment of making what’s private public.
By Julia Smirnova
What’s a surefire way to make yourself unpopular with Russia’s leaders? How about hacking into the Twitter account of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to ridicule him and President Vladimir Putin? Little wonder that the perpetrators prefer to communicate via encrypted Internet chat.
“We are authorized to speak on behalf of the entire group,” the hackers write to OZY. They operate a Twitter account and a blog that they call “Schaltai and Boltai.” It’s the Russian translation of the Humpty Dumpty character from Lewis Carroll’s book Through the Looking-Glass.
A look back: On Aug. 14, Putin prepared to deliver a speech on the annexed Crimean Peninsula as Medvedev was visiting Crimea. Then a Twitter message from Medvedev suddenly appeared: “I resign. I am ashamed of the actions of the government. I am sorry.”
Further tweets followed: “We can return to the 1980s,” referring to the dark final days of the Soviet Union. “That is sad. If this is the aim of my colleagues in the Kremlin, they will soon have achieved it.” The media reports on Medvedev’s hacked Twitter account overshadowed Putin’s speech on Crimea.
The group published a list of Russian journalists rewarded by the Russian state for coverage of the Crimean annexation.
Hackers identifying themselves as members of the group Anonymous International soon claimed responsibility. They say they have access to Medvedev’s three iPhones. On their blog, they later published information from Medvedev’s private email account which he or his assistants use for online purchases, among other things. They also published several pictures of Moscow that the prime minister had allegedly taken from a helicopter. Nothing sensational. No Snowden-like pile of state secrets. It was just the scandal of easily gaining access to highly secured data and the titillation of reading about behind-the-curtain politics and power struggles.
What’s the hackers’ aim? Not clear.
The hackers say the group was formed over several years. It consists of more than 10 people, all of them Russian citizens and most of them residing in Russia. “We communicate electronically with each other and never meet up in person,” they write. The political views within the group seem to range widely. “Some members have liberal views, while others support ideas from the Russian empire. So far, however, we’ve managed to work together. We are not idealists, but sometimes you want to change the world for the better.”
They appeared for the first time on December 31 last year, when they published the text of Putin’s New Year’s speech before its official broadcast. They then stayed silent until Crimean debacle. At the beginning of March, the group published a list of Russian journalists rewarded by the Russian state for coverage of the Crimean annexation.
The group published information about preparations for the Crimean referendum, communication with spin doctors as well as instructions to Russian journalists as to how they should report on certain topics. Particularly controversial contents involved the insight into the work of a St. Petersburg-based company called Konkord, which paid a series of Internet trolls to leave Kremlin-friendly comments in Russian and foreign media. Following this, the group’s blog and its Twitter account were blocked in Russia.
The hackers love to boast that they are familiar with internal matters. On the day that Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov visited China, they revealed almost casually what he would announce there — probably to demonstrate their power and importance. “We observed Medvedev for around one year,” they claim. They say that they “went through his mails.” During this time, they realized that he is “200 percent a purely decorative head of government. … We waited for something interesting, but it never came.”
They explain that they also observed civil servants in the government and in the Kremlin. “In the government there are many civil servants who are dissatisfied with Russia’s current Ukraine politics, particularly with regard to economy and finance,” say the hackers. The heads of the ministries are loyal to the government, but at lower levels, revolt is often brewing. However, no one has the courage to openly defend their position in public.
Russian media and bloggers suspect that the project is being used by Kremlin employees for internal intrigues.
They’re not just hacking email accounts. In the spring, Anonymous International published original documents bearing the signature of Putin’s spokesperson Dmitri Peskov, which had apparently been photographed on a desk. The hackers hinted that they have informants among the civil servants.
Russian media and bloggers suspect that the project is being used by Kremlin employees for internal intrigues. All that the hackers have to say on the matter is that they don’t care what people think of them. “At the beginning of next week, we will reveal further secrets from the Kremlin,” declare the hackers on Schaltai and Boltai.
They claim to have “terabytes” of documents that reveal interesting details about Russian history. Vladimir Putin probably feels justified in his technophobia. He doesn’t have any social media accounts. Not even a mobile phone.
The group claims to have hacked the email of Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich. If they made all his mail public, the hackers say nebulously in the chat, there would be many “private and corporate conflicts.”
So why haven’t they just spilled them out? That’s a mystery unto itself.
- Julia Smirnova, OZY Author Contact Julia Smirnova