As Russian troops moved to attack cities throughout Ukraine on Thursday, essential .ua government websites went offline. Meanwhile, cybersecurity researchers have discovered data-wiping malware on hundreds of computers in Ukraine—signaling that cyberattacks are escalating in concert with Russian airstrikes.
Russia has launched an unprecedented number of cyberattacks on Ukraine since 2014, and now that the invasion is underway, some fear a digital doomsday is imminent. With Vladimir Putin vowing to enact regime change in Ukraine, there’s fear that if he is successful, Ukrainian government and cultural websites could be lost forever.
In response, archivists around the world have begun attempting to preserve Ukraine's internet, dedicating bandwidth and disk space to archive the country’s digital history.
Archiving an entire country’s web presence is not an easy task. According to Ian Milligan, an associate professor of history at the University of Waterloo, most web archiving tools were not created for what he calls “event-based crawling.”
“Under normal circumstances, that would be done through background crawling, like how the Internet Archive twice a year tries to crawl everything—starting from a fairly extensive list of seeds and following those hyperlinks, grabbing those links, grabbing those pages,” Milligan explained to Motherboard.
But when there are major global conflicts involving powerful countries with powerful modern warfare technologies, the level of urgency skyrockets. Throughout history, nations are known for destroying documents in times of war, especially when that information could be used to prosecute future war crimes.
Milligan points out that in 50 years, historians will not only be curious about how people got their information and how it shaped their worldviews but also what kind of information archivists saved about this conflict.
“So then it becomes, here are the websites you need to grab, here are the things we need to get, because there’s suddenly a threat to this content that we use, and we need to grab this content, you know, probably February 24 because it might not be here on February 25,” said Milligan.
Liladhar Pendse, a librarian for Slavic, East European and Central Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, who created a web archive for the 2014 Ukraine Crisis, recently began selectively crawling Ukraine media and government websites again to help preserve the country’s digital history. This can be critical during conflicts where control of a region—and its digital presence—could change hands at a moment’s notice.
“It can be multimedia content, it can be policy documents,” Pendse explained to Motherboard. “This is not classified information. [It is] different local governmental and policy documents that a breakaway region of Ukraine, the Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) has put up on their websites for the world to see. But if tomorrow the DNR becomes part of the Russian Federation or gets reabsorbed [into] Ukraine, then these documents or the websites associated with them might be taken down.”
Pendse uses ArchiveIt, a subscription service used by many institutions to build and preserve collections of web content, to crawl .ua, .su, or .ru web pages and archive them for future study. Challenges to this work can range from securing permission from the content producer to archive documents or websites to establishing the authenticity of the information that is being archived. Authenticating ownership of websites and getting web crawlers to only capture relevant content are also difficult hurdles for a solo archivist to navigate.
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 website defacements against the Ukrainian government and media organizations, internet infrastructure and e-services used by Ukrainian citizens such as digital banking,” which can “cause confusion, hinder communications, weaken Ukrainian military response and demoralize the Ukrainian population.”
Herbert Lin, a cyber policy and security scholar at Stanford University, says he’s sympathetic to the archivists’ mission and agrees that the possibility of a Ukraine-internet doomsday is a legitimate concern for historians.
“Let’s say, the Russians are able to put in a pro-Putin, pro-Kremlin government,” Lin told Motherboard. “And now this government says, there’s all sorts of shit on the Ukrainian internet. We don’t like it being there because it shows a history that we think didn’t happen, and it’s all a bunch of lies and we’re going to scrub it and orders go to scrub it all. And then the fear is all the stuff that should have been there, that was previously there under a free government is now gone, right?”
Lin recalls the immediate aftermath of the 2016 US election, when there was an effort to try to preserve scientific data on climate change that was posted on US government websites which many people correctly suspected would disappear under the Trump Administration.
“So there was concern about that and some people started trying to download all the stuff onto their computers because they were afraid it would all go away,” he said. “...the vast majority of stuff on Ukrainian websites is going to be cat videos—same thing for us too. Mostly the internet circulates cat videos and stuff like that. But you know, there will be newspapers and so on that will have their archives, that the new government might not like [...] All the files of the newspaper publisher, the anti-Russian newspaper.”
Lin recommends that people wanting to help preserve digital history purchase a hard drive with several terabytes of storage. They should also be aware of the risks of event-based crawling—Lin reiterates that any American business that has anything to do with Ukraine could be a potential target for Russian cyber attacks.
While archivists, historians and cybersecurity scholars agree with the importance of this undertaking, there’s consensus that the results will likely depict a fragmented digital picture of what the crisis in Ukraine is really like. Even still, many will make an attempt to archive the Ukrainian internet with the tools available.
“I don’t need extra headaches in my life, my plate is very full, but still I am a human being,” Pendse said. “I just want to serve our users, and I don’t want to censor information from them.”