The Russian-Georgian Cyber War: Distributed Collaboration’s Ugly Side

The Kremlin may not be orchestrating the Cyber war against official Georgian Web sites, according to an article by Evgeny Morozov in Slate. Instead, it may be the result of distributed collaboration, with a nastier bent than we usually like to talk about. Evgeny also cautions that the West’s paranoia over Kremlin strength might lead many to underestimate the “great patriotic rage of many ordinary Russians” (it is worth mentioning that Evgeny says his geopolitical sympathies, to the extent that he has any, are with Moscow’s counterparts).

To test this theory, Evgeny conducted a fascinating little experiment to see if he, as a basic user, could join Russia’s cyber warfare on his own accord, without any coordination or requests from the Kremlin or Russian authorities. He found that it was actually quite easy to join in a distributed, cooperative effort to take down Georgian sites. Evgeny shows that with the help of Russian blogs and Web sites he was given a “convenient list of targets” and a software utility called DoSHTTP, which users were encouraged to download and use to launch denial of service attacks from their own computer. According to Evgeny, “In less than an hour, I had become an Internet soldier. I didn’t receive any calls from Kremlin operatives; nor did I have to buy a Web server or modify my computer in any significant way. If what I was doing was cyberwarfare, I have some concerns about the number of child soldiers who may just find it too fun and accessible to resist.”

We tend to focus more on the positive sides of distributed collaboration here at the Berkman Center. In fact, the ability of distributed groups of Internet users to contribute to large scale research projects by either contributing their time as volunteers or spare capacity on their computers is indeed one of the more unique and important characteristics of human interaction on the Internet. As Yochai Benkler has pointed out in his book and numerous articles, ubiquitous computer networks combined with cheaper, faster Internet connections means that complex tasks that once took PhDs or graduates students months or even years of dedicated effort, can now be completed by thousands of volunteers in minimal time, and at a fraction of the cost–Wikipedia being one of the more famous examples.

However, as Evgeny shows, and as Berkman Fellow Gene Koo has highlighted related to the work of trolls in the US election campaign, there are spoilers on the net that can cause as much mischief and damage as others do good. That said, there still needs to be some level of coordination and organization for sites like Wikipedia or the one that Evgeny visited to get set up and run–and I don’t think it is clear if that was simply individuals acting on their own, or if there was some level of institutional support behind those sites. It also doesn’t answer the question of why the Cyber attacks took place immediately preceding the movement of Russian troops into South Ossetia earlier this month. In any case, it is an example of a possible downside of distributed collaboration, although I doubt one that outweighs the more positive examples spreading across the Internet.

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One Response to “The Russian-Georgian Cyber War: Distributed Collaboration’s Ugly Side”

  1. Gene Koo Says:

    Is “distributed collaboration” without structured leadership and member accountability another term for “angry mob”? We need mechanisms for intra-crowd signaling, decision-making, and binding to those decisions, to distinguish virtual crowds from mobs.