This article is based on a translation of a conversation with Yegor Aushev, CEO and co-founder of the Ukrainian cybersecurity company Cyber Unit Tech, about his efforts to coordinate a cyber response to the Russian invasion. What follows has been edited for length and clarity.
February 24 of last year I woke up to the noise of explosions and bombs in kyiv. I went to the parking lot of my building and put a call on Facebook asking for volunteers to be part of a cyber army to help protect our country.
In two hours we had more than 200 requests. People were saying, “We can’t fight with a gun, but we can with our laptops.” The next day we had more than 1,000 applications, most of them from the Ukrainian cybersecurity community.
I asked them if they had any qualifications and what their skills were. I checked with an expert because he didn’t want Russian agents infiltrating.
We began to create projects in which we could help and we deliver them to the Ministry of Defense and the National Security and Defense Council, along with information to help our government unofficially.
A year later, we consider ourselves one of the 4 faces of war and national security: land, air, sea and cyberspace.
Before the war, Cyber Unit Tech trained more than 1,000 employees from various organizations with the National Security and Defense Council on cybersecurity measures, including how to find software flaws. It is impossible for a single institution to protect the whole worldso we use our experience to help any organization facing a cyber attack.
In the early days, we separated the cyber army into groups of between 7 and 10 people. He did not want anyone in the group to know the identity of the others in the event of a data leak.
Our call for decentralized cyber army volunteers is probably what inspired others to create their own groups, such as the Ukrainian IT Army, formed a few days later by Digitalization Minister Mykhailo Fedorov.
He expanded our idea and created a Telegram channel. The channel still exists and has more than 200,000 people, but we have no relationship with it. It is important to understand that in Ukraine everything is decentralized.
We work on strategic projects through Cyber Unit Tech
We have carried out different projects such as the National Defense Hackathon in November 2022, in which cybersecurity experts met to find solutions to military technical challenges.
The cyber-volunteer army does not have a single point of control and is not an official part of the Ukrainian army. He doesn’t give us orders, but he can ask us for support. Last year we worked on more than 200 projects, some small and some big.
Most consist of help organizations suffering from cyberattacks. For example, if I receive a request from the government to protect the cyberspace of an institution, I would send 5 people to help them. We only have one goal: to stop the enemy.
One of the projects we worked on was when a few groups joined forces and used our technical knowledge to create bots that would recognize if someone was trying to withdraw Russian rubles from an ATM, for example.
Another project was to use technology to recognize who was in photos left behind by Russian soldiers in Bucha, near kyiv. We would look at the photos and determine if the women in them were wives or girlfriends of soldiers. That was important to track down which Russian soldiers might have been there and have committed war crimes.
We also created simple solutions in the early days of the invasion, such as tracking and collecting data on Russian SIM cards. We could see if there were multiple Russian SIMs in a particular small town. If there were a couple hundred Russian SIMs, of course they were soldiers and not tourists.
Another example of our work that I can share is how we use street CCTV images to recognize tanks and track where their soldiers were. However, there are many things that I cannot reveal, as our work is still ongoing.
In the first two months of the invasion, our employees devoted all their time to this work. It is now an even split between this and our business, since many of our clients and companies left the Ukrainian market.
The “new normal” for Ukrainians
When I hear explosions outside, I go to the nearby bomb shelter.
I have to keep fighting and wait for the war to end. I dream of spending time with my two daughters and my girlfriend, who are in another country. It helps me focus.