In Ukraine, Russia is taking over the internet

In Ukraine, Russia is taking over the internet

In Ukraine

In the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, web pages stopped loading on residents' devices at 14:43 on May 30. For the next 59 minutes, anyone connected to the internet using KhersonTelecom, known locally as SkyNet, was unable to call loved ones, read the latest news, or upload pictures to Instagram. A total blackout of communications. When the web pages resumed appearing online at 3:42 pm, it all seemed normal. Behind the scenes, however, everything had changed: Internet traffic now passed through a Russian provider and Russian President Vladimir Putin's powerful online censorship machine.

Since the end of May, the 280,000 people living in the city Russian-occupied port and surrounding areas face constant internet outages, while the country's ISPs have been forced to redirect their connections through Russian infrastructure. According to senior Ukrainian officials and technical analysis viewed by UK, currently many Ukrainian internet providers are forced to deliver their services through Russian providers, exposing their customers to the country's extensive surveillance and censorship network.

According to Ukrainian officials and technical analysis consulted by UK, Ukrainian providers have had to choose whether to redirect connections under the watchful eye of the Russian occupation forces or cut them completely. New sim cards for mobile phones with Russian numbers are also being distributed in the region, further pushing people to Russian networks. The control of servers, cables and cell towers - infrastructures classified as critical, which allow people to freely access the web - is considered one of the first steps towards the "Russification" of the occupied areas.

"We are aware that this is a serious violation of human rights - Victor Zohora, deputy head of the Ukrainian cybersecurity agency, the State Services for Special Communications and Information Protection (SSSCIP) - From the moment it begins to be controlled by Russian special services, all traffic is monitored and Russian invaders restrict access to information resources that share truthful information. "

Redirect to occupied areas KhersonTelecom first redirected its internet traffic to a Russian network on April 30, and then returned to Ukrainian connections for most of May. However, things appear to have changed permanently since May 30th. All of KhersonTelecom 's traffic is now being channeled through Miranda Media, a Crimean - based company, itself linked to Russian national telecommunications provider Rostelecom (Miranda Media was created after Russia' s annexation of Crimea in 2014). The day after the switch, Russian state-controlled media outlet Ria Novosti reported that the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia areas were officially switching to Russian internet connections; a few days earlier, the publication reported that regions would start using the Russian telephone prefix +7.

WiredLeaks, how to send us an anonymous report Zohora reports that in occupied regions of Ukraine - including Kherson, Lugansk , Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia - around 1,200 internet providers are active. “We know that in most cases they are forced to connect to the Russian telecommunications infrastructure and redirect traffic,” Zohora explains to UK. "Unfortunately there are cases in which there has been a massive routing of the traffic of Ukrainian operators through Russian channels - adds Liliia Malon, commissioner of the Ukrainian telecommunications regulator -. Ukrainian networks are partially blocked or completely disconnected".

Technical analysis confirms that connections are indeed changing. Internet monitoring company Cloudflare found that KhersonTelecom traffic passed through Miranda Media for more than two weeks in June. Doug Madory, head of internet analysis at monitoring company Kentik, found that several networks in Kherson connect to the Russian provider. "It is not a sporadic thing - says Madory -. Every two days there is another company that passes to Russia from Ukraine".

Since the beginning of the war, the interruption or shutdown of the Ukrainian internet infrastructure has become a frequent tactic for Russia: controlling the flow of information is an extremely effective weapon. Russian missiles destroyed television towers, launched a cyberattack on a satellite system that had repercussions across Europe and sowed disinformation in an attempt to sap Ukrainian souls. Despite frequent internet blackouts, the rich ecosystem of Ukrainian providers has mobilized to allow citizens to stay online. While Ukrainian troops are successfully launching a series of counterattacks against Russian troops in the south of the country, Kherson is still controlled by the occupation forces (in March it became the first major city to fall into Russian hands; its inhabitants live below occupation for about 100 days and have suffered numerous incidents of torture).

"It is one thing to conquer a city and control the supply lines, the flow of food or fuel," says David Belson, head of Cloudflare data insight. "Controlling access and being able to manipulate it in an occupied area", however, represents a "new front" in the conflict.

Russia's broad strategy There are several ways in which Russian forces are taking over of Ukrainian internet systems. First, there is physical access: Russian troops are seizing Ukraine 's equipment. Spokespeople for two of the country's largest providers, Kyivstar and Lifecell, report that their equipment in Kherson has been shut down by Russian forces, and that they have no way to restore or repair it. in the midst of bombing and attacks to repair damaged equipment). The SSSCIP claims that twenty percent of the telecommunications infrastructure in Ukraine has been damaged or destroyed, and that tens of thousands of kilometers of fiber optic networks are not working.

Once control of the equipment is obtained, Russian forces order Ukrainian personnel to reconfigure networks to direct them to Miranda Media, Zohora said. "In case the local employees of these providers are unwilling to help them with the reconfiguration, [the Russians, ed.] Do it themselves," she explains. The SSSCIP, she adds, advised staff not to risk their lives or that of their families. "We hope to be able to clear these lands soon and that this temporary period of blackmail against the operators will end," Zohora continues, adding that it is unlikely that communications in the region can be restored before the areas are cleared.

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Arrow Gudz Dmitry Alexandrovich, owner of KhersonTelecom says that when the company's connection switched to Miranda Media for the first time in early May , some customers thanked him because people could continue to connect to the internet, while others scolded him for connecting to the Russian service. In a long Facebook post posted on the company's page in early May, Alexandrovich said he wanted to help people and shared photos of the crowd that gathered outside the KhersonTelecom office to connect to the wi-fi. br>
Russia is also trying to control mobile connections. In recent weeks, a mysterious new mobile phone company has popped up in Kherson. There are some images circulating showing the sale of blank, completely white and unbranded sim cards. There isn't much information on these cards; however, the mobile network appears to use the Russian prefix +7. Videos show crowds of citizens gathering to get their hands on the sims. "Russian forces realize that continuing to use Ukrainian mobile networks is a disadvantage," said Cathal Mc Daid, chief technology officer of mobile security firm AdaptiveMobile. The company found that two separatist mobile operators in Donetsk and Lugansk have expanded their coverage to the newly occupied areas.

Surveillance and propaganda Who controls the internet is an important issue. While most countries place limited restrictions on the websites that people can view, a handful of authoritarian nations, including China, North Korea, and Russia, severely restrict access.

The Russia has an extensive internet censorship and surveillance system, which has grown in recent years as the country sought to carry out its sovereign internet project isolated from the rest of the world. The Country's Investigative Operations System, or Sorm, can be used to read people's emails, intercept text messages and monitor other communications.

"Russian networks are fully controlled by the authorities of the country ", explains Malon, according to which the redirection of the internet in occupied areas of Ukraine is aimed at spreading the" Kremlin propaganda "and convincing the population that the Ukrainian forces have abandoned them." They fear that the news about the Ukrainian military advances encourage resistance in the Kherson region, "adds Zohora.

At the heart of the redirect is Miranda Media, the Crimean operator who appeared after the region's annexation in 2014. Among the company's "partners" listed on its website are the Russian security service known as the FSB and the country's defense ministry. The company did not respond to a request for comment from UK.

In many ways, Crimea can be an example of what happens in newly occupied areas: "Only in 2017 was Crimea completely disconnected from Ukrainian traffic. And now, as far as I know, there is only Russian traffic, "says Ksenia Ermoshina, research assistant at the Center for Internet and Society and researcher at the Citizen Lab. In January last year, Ermoshina and her colleagues published a study explaining how Russia took control of Crimea's internet infrastructure.

In 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, Russian authorities laid two new internet cables running along the Strait of Kerch and connect to Russia. This process took three years to complete: Ermoshina calls it a "soft replacement model". Since then, Russia has developed more advanced systems for controlling the internet. "The power of the Russian censorship machine changed between [2014 and 2022, ed.] - says Ermoshina -. The thing I fear is the strength of Russian propaganda".

Russian authorities are likely to consider the redirection of the internet to Kherson and surrounding areas as a key step in trying to legitimize the occupation, says Olena Lennon, an adjunct professor of Ukrainian political science and national security from the University of New Haven. The tactics employed could also be a model for future conflicts.

Russian officials have also begun to distribute Russian passports, and the country's authorities say a Russian bank will soon open in Kherson. The occupation forces have set the Moscow time zone in the region. Many of these passages bring to mind what happened in the past in Crimea, Donetsk and Lugansk. "Russia is making it clear that it wants to go through with it," says Lennon. Internet control plays a key role in this strategy. "They are making plans for long-term employment," she adds.

This article originally appeared on UK.

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