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Russia's cyber war heats up ahead of presidential elections

Weeks before Russia's presidential elections, a cyber war is raging between rival political factions. Hackers both from the opposition and pro-Kremlin forces are turning the web into a battlefield.

The Moscow daily Kommersant describes it as the "biggest political scandal of the last 12 years." The paper claims to have identified the pro-Kremlin youth organization Nashi as being behind the massive hacker attacks of March 2008. According to Kommersant, there is evidence in emails from Nashi head Vasily Yamenko and press spokeswoman Kristina Potupchik.

Hackers affiliated with the international group Anonymous cracked into the email accounts of Yamenko and Potupchik and published the emails on the Internet. Kommersant then called on the Russian Interior Ministry to investigate the issue. The evidence was enough to launch a criminal investigation, wrote Demjan Koudriavtsev, director general of the paper's publishing house, in his blog.

Nashi meanwhile rejects all allegations and has threatened to sue Kommersant for libel. The youth organization is financed through taxes and for years has been providing strong support for Vladimir Putin. Currently prime minister, Putin is widely expected to return to the presidency in the March 2012 elections.

Battlefield Internet

Vladimir Putin

Nashi members cheering then 2012 presidential hopeful Putin

Not only does the hacking scandal cast a shadow on Vladimir Putin, it also illustrates how important the Internet has become in Russian politics. Russian media are talking about a "cyber war" between opposition hackers and their pro-Kremlin counterparts.

There's barely been a ceasefire. On February 8 and 9, Anonymous hijacked the website of Putin's United Russia party. Just before that, the websites of several opposition parties had been attacked. The Internet is increasingly also used for campaigns against opposition politicians. For instance, their private phone conversations are being tapped and leaked on the Internet as was the case with former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov.

The biggest incidence of hacking so far occured on December 4 when Russia voted in parliamentary elections. The websites of several critical media outlets, amongst them Kommersant and an independent election observer group, where offline for hours.

According to Alexei Venediktov, editor in chief of the influential radio station Echo of Moscow, those attacks further call into question the already doubtful legitimacy of those elections. "It was an attempt to block our station from reporting on election irregularities," Venediktov said.

Costly warfare

Russian authorities say it is too difficult to bring those hackers to justice and internet experts confirm that usually the hackers are way ahead of the police in their online and computer skills.

Boris Nemtsov

Opposition politician Boris Nemtsov had his phone tapped and leaked to the web

In most cases, the incidents are so called DDoS attacks. This is short for "Distributed Denial of Service," and basically means that thousands of requests are sent to a server in order to bring it down. It is by no means a cheap endeavor - according to Kommersant, such attacks on its own website might easily have cost the hackers several tens of thousands of euros.

The hacked email accounts of the Nashi leadership also raise moral questions, Kommersant writes. If hackers attack opposition figures, then this is quickly condemned as an infringement of privacy. But in the case of the Nashi hack, the victims are "functionaries affiliated with the government and of questionable reputation," according to the paper. Kommersant then poses the question as to whether it is legitimate to use illegally hacked emails as evidence - and the paper choses not to give an answer to that moral dilemma.

Many of liberal-minded Russians are likely to also ponder that question. Artjom Loskutov for instance is a blogger for DW's Russian service: "On the one hand there are cases in which it's about the private lives of opposition politicians, but on the other hand we have cases like this one which is really relevant to society." In this case, he argues, hacking the email accounts of Nashi is a moral victory for Anonymous.

And the hackers have already announced more such attacks.

Author: Roman Goncharenko/ai
Editor: Joanna Impey

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