Belarus is “Europe’s last Soviet dictatorship,” a country ruled by Alexander Lukashenko, an absurd authoritarian caricature who once had a one-armed man arrested for clapping:
Lukashenko’s brutality is absurd, but it’s no joke. Belarus has a terrible human rights record: it’s a corrupt land of secret disappearances and torture (it’s also my heritage: my grandfather was born in Nowy Swerzne, Belarus).
Lukashenko is a clown, but he possesses the administrative competence to avail himself of high-tech surveillance — a decade ago, he was already using mobile carriers’ records to obtain lists of every person who attended anti-government demonstrations.
But as the saying goes “any weapon you don’t know how to use is your enemy’s.” Lukashenko’s regime is highly digitized — and badly secured. Earlier this year, hacktivists called the Belarusian Cyber Partisans announced that they’d obtained a huge trove of government docs.
The trove includes the identities of police informants, government officials’ personal information (including spies), recordings from the state’s widespread wiretapping program, and footage from security cameras and drones.
Now, these documents are starting to trickle out. As Ryan Gallagher reports for Bloomberg, the authorities are starting to freak. The head of the Belarusian KGB made a special TV broadcast to blame the breach on foreign spies.
The leaks expose Lukashenko officials to liability in the International Criminal Court when and if the regime finally falls. The leaks are being promoted by BYPOL, a dissident group of former Belarusian cops who resigned en masse after last year’s rigged election.
They’re especially incensed to learn that Lukashenko’s spies were wiretapping cops (including senior cops), and planning violent suppression of peaceful protesters — actions that made the cops look particularly bad.
While there are parallels between the Cyber Partisans and other hacktivist groups like Anonymous, Gabriella Coleman (who literally wrote the book on political hacktivism) told Gallagher that this represents a new level of hacktivist activity.
Gallagher spoke to a Cyber Partisans spokesperson who claimed the group’s membership was 15 people: 304 intrusion specialists with the rest serving as data-analysts. The members are said to work in Belarus’s tech industry.
There’s lots more to come in this breach — they have 1–2 million minutes of wiretap audio alone.
Lukashenko’s hold on power has never been more fragile. Even by low global standards, his government seriously bungled covid respnse.
Last year’s protests over obviously rigged elections saw massive waves of protest that only swelled in the face of brutal repression and mass arrests. Senior military officers publicly burned their uniforms in protest.
Dozens of riot cops dropped their shields and switched sides, embracing protesters as brothers.
Coleman told Gallagher that she had never seen hacktivists operating as skilfully as the Cyber Partisans “except in the movies.” It’s true that Belarus’s indomitable and creative opposition seem to be ripped from fiction.
Last year, I wrote that the protests bore a resemblance to the climax of my 2017 novel Walkaway.
The current breach triggered lots of email from people who say it reminds them of the plot of my 2020 novel Attack Surface:
But I didn’t “predict” this — instead, I observed the same tactics being used by other opposition movements as the Cyber Patriots, and, like them, thought about how they might evolve.
Just as my 2008 novel Little Brother was inspired by the whistleblower Mark Klein, who revealed the NSA’s mass surveillance program — official lies about this also inspired Snowden’s decision to reveal more NSA secrets.
I didn’t “predict” Snowden — instead, we were both paying attention to the same underlying phenomena. And while it’s easy to get discouraged about the ways that tech is used as a force for oppression and control, examples like this remind us of its liberatory potential.
The mission of technological self-determination isn’t motivated by blind faith that more tech leads to more human rights — rather, it’s the dual understanding that unless we seize the means of computation tech will be a terrible force for oppression.
But that also, wrestling control over the technology that enables us to form groups and coordinate their actions has powerful potential for human thriving. This isn’t crude optimism, rather, its motto is, “This will all be so great…if we don’t screw it up.”