Luke Pierce

The Daily Beast

September 30, 2020

WARSAW, Poland—One of the rare successes chalked up by the regime of Europe’s last dictator has been the establishment of a kind of East European Silicon Valley, which spawned a booming industry of Belarusian programmers and tech start-ups.

The autocratic president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, now fears he has created a monster.

An army of 30,000 tech-savvy professionals is turning against its creator. Coders and software engineers, many of whom are linked to the state-sponsored Hi-Tech Park in Minsk, have formed a hacking collective called Cyber Partisans which is wreaking havoc as Lukashenko tries to quell a growing revolution.

Thousands of Belarusians have been arrested since August’s presidential election, which was condemned as rigged by foreign observers. Opposition leaders claim Lukashenko was voted out of power amid huge demonstrations against a brutal quarter of a century in power.

Hundreds of those who were arrested have been beaten and assaulted, some have allegedly even been raped and killed in jails. Lukashenko has tried to emulate his ally President Putin’s iron grip on dissent.

Over the weekend, Cyber Partisans hacked into the Belarusian TV and Radio Company website, the national state media organisation, and showed 30 minutes of footage of security forces using violent force against protesters instead of the usual state news. “The guy who created this is a real hero,” one of the hackers told The Daily Beast. “He spent about one week to prepare everything. He was a few days without sleep.”

That was just the latest act of online civil disobedience.

Over the past three months, a common sight in the streets of Minsk—often in broad daylight—is the image of a desperate civilian being dragged, kicking and screaming, into an unmarked police vehicle by masked men, often in plain clothes. The vast majority of the individuals behind the violent crackdown and aggression have remained nameless and faceless. Abuses and crimes committed against the population were likely to go without consequence—until now.

In a small office in central Warsaw, Yan Verbitsky, who works for NEXTA, an independent, anti-Lukashenko media organisation, sat at his computer admiring a spreadsheet he recently procured from the hackers filled with the personal details of Belarusian police. “We want to show that they will not be able to hide behind masks and remain anonymous in their atrocities” he says. Mumbling to himself in Russian, he plots the best way to present the list to the public and declares that he has no sympathy towards those he is about to unmask.

“NOBODY STAYS ANONYMOUS” was the message eventually sent to two million Belarusians. It came at the start of a post releasing the names, addresses, dates of birth, and car registrations of 12 senior OMON police officials, accused of violence against citizens in Belarus. OMON is a special unit of the police, seen unbadged, armed with sticks, batons and pepper spray, and regularly pictured brutalising and harassing citizens countrywide.

Attempts had previously been made to unmask individual officers behind the attacks on citizens. Nina Bahiskaya, 73, a prominent activist in Belarus, has been pictured grasping at balaclavas worn by police to expose their faces. Before the hack, there was no way to do this on a wider scale.

On Aug. 16, NEXTA, which is run out of the Polish capital, released the alleged identities of a dozen senior police officers via its channel NEXTA Live on the encrypted messaging app Telegram. Since then, they have gone on to release the names of over 2,000 more. Yan said: “[Lukashenko] is not able to ensure the security of the data of his own minions.”

NEXTA has played a huge role in the revolution. With a growing following of over two million people, they release hundreds of videos and images daily depicting police brutality towards citizens. Protesters also look to them for instructions on where to converge for major demonstrations. All the while, these protests are orchestrated remotely. Their efforts have been effective in coordinating protesters and spreading word of abuses, but more was required.

The Cyber Partisans claim to have seized over 10,000 names of individuals involved in the security services taken directly from the database of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. They have shared this information with NEXTA in the hope of forcing more and more of Lukashenko’s officials to quit.

“We hope that the publication of the lists will encourage honest people who have remained in the system to leave it and join the people,” said Verbitsky. NEXTA says it has since received hundreds of police resignations, with more arriving every day.

It is impossible to say what has inspired these resignations as many have already quit in response to the conduct of the government. There have also been cases of riot police putting down their shields and being embraced by protesters in thanks for their defiance.

During an interview, conducted on a high-security encrypted messaging app, one of the hackers, using the pseudonym “Yura”, explained that after witnessing the violent clashes and the continued harassment of civilians, they decided to act. “We have [the] chance to do something for our country right now and to change something,” he said.

He explained that the government data security was weak, and it took just a few hours to retrieve the identities, but since then Yura said, they have gone into “paranoia mode.” Not only in the streets, but also in cyberspace—increasing their security measures to halt further compromises.

The list of identities shared with NEXTA is a fraction of Belarus’s total police force, which is estimated anywhere between 200,000 and 300,000, but it is made up predominantly of senior officers and commanders across many branches of the internal security apparatus. Less attention is given to the foot soldiers, since NEXTA claims, “The security forces themselves also suffer in it; they are being turned into criminals—and many who, going to the service, did not subscribe to the crime.”

The army of future hackers began to take shape in 2005 when Lukashenko signed a decree triggering the creation of Hi-Tech Park in Minsk. Since then, it has flourished into one of the country’s most dominant economic powers. Software exports reached over a billion U.S. dollars in 2017, and more than 27,000 software developers and engineers were drawn to work in Hi-Tech Park alone.

The tech industry was then built from the ground up by Valery Tshepkalo, a former aide to Lukashenko and Belarus’s former ambassador to the United States. After his success kickstarting a Belarusian tech revolution, Tshepkalo fell out with Lukashenko and stood against him to be president in 2008.

When he was banned from running again and forced into exile earlier this year, his wife, Veronika Tshepkalo, took up the mantle and became one of a troika of female leaders at the head of a popular uprising against Lukashenko’s regime.

Speaking from his apartment in Warsaw, Valery Tshepkalo told The Daily Beast that the tech industry and its highly trained workers have become “the strongest opponents to this regime.” He had no idea that a technological rebellion would be required to fight against Lukashenko when building this industry.

Now that the Ministry of Internal Affairs database of officials has been breached, Tshepkalo accepted that members of the security services had a difficult decision to make but he called on them to stop following illegal orders and quit. “We call on them to resign,” he said.

The total number of tech experts actively turning against the government is unclear. Yura said so far there were “about 50-100 Cyber Partisans. Maybe more. It’s only just begun.”

The Cyber Partisans do not work alone. He mentioned there were other hacker groups, but there have been issues working collectively as they need to be able to trust each other. The police are attempting to infiltrate these networks and it is near impossible to confidently share information between groups without suspicion.

Any type of anti-government activity holds heavy sentences in Belarus, so Yura and his group are taking major risks. “I understand my risks but I’m trying not to think about this. We are trying to be more careful,” he said.

The Belarusian authorities have acknowledged the data breach and will not take it lightly. “The forces, means, and technologies at the disposal of the internal affairs bodies make it possible to identify and prosecute the overwhelming majority of those guilty of leaking personal data on the Internet,” said Volha Chamadanava, a ministry spokeswoman.

This risk and the threat of reprisal is not deterring the group from continuing their work.

They intend to keep sourcing more information about the police, including photographs, social media profiles, email addresses, home addresses and telephone numbers, any information that will name and shame the police. They were close to obtaining the entire police database but lost their chance and “are searching for a new one.” Yet data leaks are not their only method of agitation.

Looking forward, Yura declared that he has no desire to become a full-time hacker and will continue his career in software engineering once Lukashenko is out for good. But, for now, this transfer of skills put to political use among the tech community appears to be yet another vital string in the bow of the revolution with the mission to remove Lukashenko from power.

The security services in Belarus appear to be key in this revolution and in keeping Lukashenko in power. They are well paid, well equipped and are highly effective in suppressing any anti-Lukashenko, or pro-free, election sentiments, however minor or major, across the country.

“We warned you: you won’t be able to hide under Balaclavas, Lukashenko,” affirmed NEXTA.