Belarusian hackers are turning the country’s surveillance state against it

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BYPOL also has access to material from the Cyber Partisans to help them conduct investigations into the regime, which are then published on BYPOL’s own Telegram channel. Those investigations have been popular and successful, and one of their documentaries was cited during an American congressional hearing on Belarus that took place shortly before the US imposed sanctions against Lukashenko and his allies.

The hackers say their latest series of attacks has given them access to drone footage from protest crackdowns, the Ministry of Interior Affairs’s mobile-phone surveillance database, and databases for passports, motor vehicles, and more. They also say they have accessed audio recordings from emergency services and video feeds from road speed and surveillance cameras, as well as from isolation cells where detainees are held. 

The Partisans say their intention is to undermine the regime at every level. “We have a strategic plan that includes cyberattacks to paralyze as much as possible of the regime’s security forces, to sabotage the regime’s weak points in the infrastructure, and to provide protection for protesters,” said the spokesperson. 

“The hack is important because it shows the regime is not as unstoppable and unbeatable as it projects to be,” says Artyom Shraibman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “It shows the weakness of their system. It emboldens the protesters. Many people in the protest have met these leaks with joy and a sense of victory.”

The hacks were previously reported by Current Time and Bloomberg.

“We don’t have any professional hackers”

The Cyber Partisans say they are not criminal hackers but technology-sector employees who cannot stand by any longer. The group’s spokesperson says that four individuals conduct “actual ethical hacking” while the others provide support, analysis, and data processing.

“We don’t have any professional hackers,” they told MIT Technology Review. “All of us are IT specialists and some cybersecurity specialists that learned on the go.”

Pavel Slunkin, who was a Belarusian diplomat until last year and is now working with the European Council on Foreign Relations, says that the Partisans reflect the technology industry’s importance to the country.

“The Belarusian people who work in tech not only want economic impact, but they want to transform it into political influence.”

“The Belarusian people who work in tech not only want economic impact but they want to transform it into political influence,” he says. “These kinds of people have houses, cars, and everything—except they can’t choose their own future. But now they’ve decided that they can participate in political life. They have played a very important role, if not the most important role, in what happened in Belarus in 2020.”

In the run-up to last year’s election campaign, opposition candidate Sergei Tikhanovsky recruited a number of tech experts. He was arrested two days after publicly announcing his candidacy, and his wife, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, took his place as Lukashenko’s main opponent.

“When Tikhanovsky was put in prison, the protest movement felt destroyed,” Slunkin says. “This was the starting point for people trying to oppose the regime, not on the streets, but instead where they feel stronger and more secure than the government.”

“As comprehensive a hack as one can imagine”

Lukashenko’s iron grip on media and information inside Belarus has forced political opponents to move to apps like Telegram, which are harder to block or regulate. The hackers’ Telegram channel has more than 77,000 subscribers.

Their most recent postings include a recording of a conversation between two senior Belarusian police officials on August 8, 2020, the day before the presidential election. In the recording, the deputy chief of the Minsk police and his subordinate discuss “preventative” arrests of protesters and major political opponents. Their targets include staff working for Tsikhanouskaya.