By Joel Schectman and Christopher Bing
(Reuters) – The government of Ukraine is asking for volunteers from the country’s hacker underground to help protect critical infrastructure and conduct cyber spying missions against Russian troops, according two people involved in the project.
As Russian forces attacked cities across Ukraine, requests for volunteers began to appear on hacker forums on Thursday morning, as many residents fled the capital Kyiv.
“Ukrainian cybercommunity! It’s time to get involved in the cyber defense of our country,” the post read, asking hackers and cybersecurity experts to submit an application via Google docs, listing their specialties, such as malware development, and professional references.
Yegor Aushev, co-founder of a cybersecurity company in Kyiv, told Reuters he wrote the post at the request of a senior Defense Ministry official who contacted him on Thursday. Aushev’s firm Cyber Unit Technologies is known for working with Ukraine’s government on the defense of critical infrastructure.
Another person directly involved in the effort confirmed that the request came from the Defense Ministry on Thursday morning.
Ukraine Defense Ministry representatives did not respond to a request for comment. A defense attache at Ukraine’s embassy in Washington said he “cannot confirm or deny information from Telegram channels” referring to the mobile messaging platform, and declined further comment.
Aushev said the volunteers would be divided into defensive and offensive cyber units. The defensive unit would be employed to defend infrastructure such as power plants and water systems. In a 2015 cyberattack, widely attributed to Russia state hackers, 225,000 Ukrainians lost electricity.
The offensive volunteer unit Aushev said he is organizing would help Ukraine’s military conduct digital espionage operations against invading Russian forces.
“We have an army inside our country,” Aushev said. “We need to know what they are doing.”
On Wednesday, a newly discovered piece of destructive software was found circulating in Ukraine, hitting hundreds of computers, according to researchers at the cybersecurity firm ESET. Suspicion fell on Russia, which has repeatedly been accused of hacks against Ukraine and other countries. The victims included government agencies and a financial institution, Reuters previously reported.
Russia has denied the allegations.
The effort to build a cyber military force is coming late in the game, Aushev acknowledged.
A Ukrainian security official said earlier this month that the country had no dedicated military cyber force, the Washington Post reported. “It’s our task to create them this year,” he told the Washington Post.
Reached late Thursday night in Ukraine, Aushev said he already had received hundreds of applicants and was going to begin vetting to ensure that none of them were Russian agents.
(Reporting by Joel Schectman and Christopher Bing; editing by Grant McCool)