Ukrainian websites go dark. The archivists try to save them.
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As Russian troops moved to attack towns across Ukraine on Thursday, key .ua government websites went offline. Meanwhile, cybersecurity researchers have discovered data-erasing malware on hundreds of computers in Ukraine, signaling that cyberattacks are intensifying in concert with Russian airstrikes.
Russia has launched an unprecedented number of cyberattacks against Ukraine since 2014, and now that the invasion is underway, some fear a digital catastrophe is imminent. As Vladimir Putin promises to enact regime change in Ukraine, there are fears that if he succeeds, the Ukrainian government and cultural websites will be lost forever.
In response, archivists around the world began attempting to preserve Ukraine’s internet, dedicating bandwidth and disk space to archiving the country’s digital history.
Archiving an entire country’s web presence is no easy task. According to Ian Milligan, an associate professor of history at the University of Waterloo, most web archiving tools weren’t created for what he calls “event-based exploration.”
“Under normal circumstances, this would be done by background crawling, like the way the Internet Archive tries to crawl everything twice a year – starting from a fairly large list of seeds and following those hyperlinks, typing those links, grabbing those pages,” Milligan explained. to the motherboard.
But when there are major global conflicts involving powerful countries with powerful modern warfare technologies, the level of urgency skyrockets. Throughout history, nations have been known to destroy documents during times of war, especially when that information could be used to prosecute future war crimes.
Milligan points out that 50 years from now, historians will not only be curious about how people got their information and how it shaped their worldview, but also what kind of information archivists have kept about this conflict.
“So it becomes, here are the websites you need to seize, here are the things we need to get, because suddenly there’s a threat to this content that we’re using, and we need to seize this content, you know, probably February 24 because he might not be there on February 25,” Milligan said.
Liladhar Pendse, a librarian for Slavic, Eastern European, and Central Asian studies at the University of California, Berkeley, who created a web archive for the 2014 Ukraine crisis, recently started exploring again in a Select Ukrainian media and government websites to help preserve the country’s digital history. . This can be critical during conflicts where control of a region – and its digital presence – can change hands at any time.
“It can be media content, it can be policy documents,” Pendse told Motherboard. “This is not classified information. [It is] various local government and political documents that a breakaway region of Ukraine, the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), has posted on their websites for the world to see. But if tomorrow the DNR becomes part of the Russian Federation or is reabsorbed [into] Ukraine, these materials or the websites associated with them may be removed.
Pendse uses ArchiveIt, a subscription service used by many institutions to create and maintain web content collections, to crawl .ua, .su or .ru web pages and archive them for future study. Challenges in this job can range from obtaining permission from the content producer to archive documents or websites to establishing the authenticity of archived information. Authenticating ownership of websites and ensuring that web crawlers only capture relevant content are also difficult hurdles for a solo archivist to overcome.
Insikt Group, the threat research arm of Recorded Future, noted in an executive summary that the cyber aspect of the hybrid warfare operation targeting Ukraine will consist primarily of “distributed denial-of-service attacks and degradation. of websites against the Ukrainian government and the media, Internet infrastructure and electronic services used by Ukrainian citizens, such as digital banking services”, which can “sow confusion, hinder communications, weaken the Ukrainian military response and demoralize the population Ukrainian”.
Herbert Lin, a cyberpolitics and security specialist at Stanford University, says he is sympathetic to the archivists’ mission and agrees that the possibility of internet disaster in Ukraine is a legitimate concern for historians.
“Let’s say the Russians are able to put together a pro-Putin, pro-Kremlin government,” Lin told Motherboard. “And now this government is saying that there is all kinds of bullshit on the Ukrainian internet. We don’t like that it’s there because it shows a story that we think didn’t happen, and it’s just a bunch of lies and we’re gonna erase it all and the orders are gonna erase it all . And then the fear is that everything that should have been there, that used to be there under a free government is now gone, isn’t it? »
Lin recalls the immediate aftermath of the 2016 U.S. election, when there was an effort to try to preserve scientific data on climate change that was published on U.S. government websites, which many people rightly suspected. title that they would disappear under the Trump administration.
“So there were concerns about that and some people started trying to download all the content to their computers because they were afraid that everything would disappear,” he said. “…the vast majority of content on Ukrainian websites will be videos of cats – it’s the same for us too. Most of the time the internet is showing videos of cats and stuff like that. But you know , there will be newspapers and so on that will have their archives, which the new government might not like […] All files from the editor of the newspaper, the anti-Russian newspaper.
Lin recommends people who want to help preserve digital history buy a hard drive with several terabytes of storage. They should also be aware of the risks associated with event-based exploration. Lin reminds that any American company having something to do with Ukraine could be a potential target for Russian cyberattacks.
While archivists, historians and cybersecurity specialists agree on the importance of this endeavor, there is consensus that the findings will likely paint a fragmented digital picture of what the crisis in Ukraine really looks like. Even still, many will try to archive the Ukrainian Internet with the available tools.
“I don’t need any extra headaches in my life, my plate is very full, but I’m still a human being,” Pendse said. “I just want to serve our users, and I don’t want to censor their information.”