The Belarusian Cyber Partisans’ story

What can the Belarusian Cyber Partisans teach us about challenging authoritarianism?
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In a world where oppressive regimes wield control through censorship and surveillance, the Belarusian Cyber Partisans have emerged as a vital force in the fight for freedom and democracy. Formed in response to the disputed 2020 Belarusian presidential elections and subsequent government crackdowns, this hacktivist collective has become instrumental in shedding light on human rights abuses and challenging President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime.

The Belarusian Cyber Partisans’ overall goals are twofold. First, the group helps Belarusian democratic activists withstand the repressive political regime by safeguarding them in cyberspace. Second, they work to unveil and document evidence of the crimes committed by the authorities, ensuring accountability in future transitional justice processes.

The Current Climate in Belarus

Following the contested 2020 elections, Belarus has witnessed more than three years of harsh repression under President Aleksandr Lukashenko. In this environment, dissent is met with severe repercussions. Thousands are facing politically motivated criminal charges, arbitrary detentions, and allegations of violence by security forces.

Democratic voices are stifled. All independent mass media and non-governmental organisations have been effectively silenced, leaving citizens with limited access to objective information. This situation has prompted international human rights organisations and foreign governments to label Belarus’s current human rights conditions as the direst in Europe in the last half-century.

The work of the Belarusian Cyber Partisans

The Belarusian Cyber Partisans consist of around 80 volunteers, with a core of approximately 30 individuals. The group operates on four main fronts, each with a clear purpose: they conduct cyberattacks, create secure communication channels, engage in education efforts, and analyse and expose the repressive Lukashenko regime.

First, the group conducts cyberattacks on the Belarusian and Russian regimes. They have undertaken several notable operations, including a successful campaign against the Belarusian Railways. This cyber operation began in December 2020 and continued with a second attack on January 23, 2021. The goal was to disrupt the work of freight trains, thereby indirectly impacting the Russian transportation of troops, weapons, and other equipment to the Ukrainian border. Following the escalation of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the Cyber Partisans executed additional attacks on February 26, 2022, and March 2, 2022. These attacks disabled the Automatic Train Control system, which is responsible for guiding trains and managing railway infrastructure. This disrupted Russian military train movements in Belarus for approximately two weeks.

In another significant operation, the Belarusian Cyber Partisans targeted the Ministry of Internal Affairs. They obtained a trove of sensitive data, including the passport database containing the personal details of every Belarusian citizen, including top government officials, special agents, and spies. They also acquired the Department of Motor Vehicles database, the Human Resources database for the entire Ministry of Internal Affairs, operational drone footage captured during protests, and the mobile phone wiretapping database. This cache of information serves as crucial evidence for ongoing investigations into the regime’s actions.

In another effective attack, the Cyber Partisans targeted the General Radio Frequency Centre (GRFC), which belongs to Roskomnadzor, Russia’s main censorship authority. During this operation, the hacktivist collective infiltrated the internal network, downloading documents and mail correspondence. They also compromised tracking systems, amassing over 2 terabytes of data. As a result, the group revealed that Roskomnadzor engaged in large-scale surveillance of individuals who did not support Kremlin policies.

These operations demonstrate the Belarusian Cyber Partisans’ commitment to uncovering information and advocating for accountability while adhering to their Code of Conduct [in Russian]. This code explains what amounts to a legitimate target, how the group can avoid endangering regular citizens, and other responsible actions.

Second, the group focuses on using secure communication. The Cyber Partisans have developed Telegram chatbots for over 100 Belarusian initiatives and groups. They introduced Partisan Telegram, a modification (‘fork’) of the well-known messenger programme Telegram adapted for data protection for politically engaged users living under repressive regimes. The adaptation includes several important features, such as automatically blocking authorities from accessing sensitive data when a user gets detained. It also features improvements in confidentiality and security for Telegram users.

A third strategy focuses on extensive educational efforts. They create materials that educate Belarusians on safe internet usage. They offer technical support to activists to enable secure communication and minimise the risk of detection. The group disseminates succinct and comprehensible content through its Telegram channel. These materials cover key subjects, such as guidelines on the secure use of various messaging platforms, strategies for creating alternative accounts on Google products, and recommended settings for personal devices.

Finally, the group actively analyses and exposes the Belarusian regime’s repressive activity. The Cyber Partisans engage with journalists, academics, and human rights organisations, fostering partnerships to amplify their message. Among such organisations are the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, the independent online investigator collective Bellingcat, the Organized Corruption and Reporting Project (OCCRP), the Belarusian Investigative Center, and the Belarusian opposition television channel Belsat.

 Analysis of hacked databases is another mission. It facilitates investigations into regime officials and helps foreign democratic agencies verify Belarusian citizens and companies. In the last two years, the Cyber Partisans managed to expose hundreds of regime agents who were sent to European countries to spy on Belarusian activists and interfere with their host governments.

Most importantly, the Belarusian Cyber Partisans demonstrate the resilience of resistance to the Lukashenko regime. Their hacktivists employ robust methods of protection and concealment, ensuring that none of them have been tracked down by the regime’s security services. At the same time, the group publicises the repressive actions of the regime, which has proven unable to withstand the Cyber Partisans’ interventions.

Supporting Ukraine and beyond

Beyond their work in Belarus, the Belarusian Cyber Partisans have extended their efforts to support Ukraine in its struggle for sovereignty and independence. They provide technical assistance to the Kalinousky Regiment, a group currently fighting in Ukraine, and collaborate with Ukrainian special services.

Another important function is serving as a vital connection between those who remain in Belarus and political and civil society activists operating outside the country. Partisan Telegram enables Belarusians to access independent sources of information and securely communicate, reducing the risk of detention for following opposition channels.

In a world where the battle for democracy is fought on multiple fronts, the Belarusian Cyber Partisans stand as a testament to the power of technology, information, and unwavering commitment. Their mission is clear: to shine a light on injustice, provide tools for secure communication, and work toward a future where freedom and democracy prevail.