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Russia: Hacker Hell, Scourge of the RuNet

When noted Russian anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny's email and Twitter accounts were hacked on June 26 [ru], it came as no surprise that a hacker [ru] who goes by the somewhat pretentious moniker “Hell” took responsibility [ru]. After all, the same hacker claimed [ru] to have gained access to Navalny's email and Facebook accounts last fall, apparently seeking to expose his activism as fraudulent. The motivation for the second attack was, according to Hell [ru], a desire to finish the job, since he was not able to extract all of Navalny's correspondence in the first attempt.

The exercise seems petty — then, as now, there do not seem to be any smoking guns secreted away in the gigabytes of Navalny's emails. The vandalism of Navalny's Twitter (Hell tweeted from the account in a style that can only be described as obscene inanity) was also immature, at best. This, however, is the point. Hell, in the long tradition of Internet trolls, thrives on pettiness and immaturity. A legendary figure in the RuNet, Hell gained his notoriety in 2005, following a string of LiveJournal-account break-ins (see here [ru] for a full list). He would hijack an account and its associated email, and either delete all the posts, expose private emails and messages, or both. The early hacks seemed to be without rhyme or reason. Some targeted Russian Internet personalities Hell for some reason found annoying or offensive, resulting for example in attacks on politically neutral journalist and blogger [ru] Samson Sholademi and a notorious LJ troll, Stalinist, and anti-Semite [ru] szhapokljak2 (now defunct).

Other targets evolved into personal vendettas. Such was the case of Andrei Malgin, a liberal advertising/newspaper entrepreneur, who currently lives in Italy and blogs as avmalgin [ru]. Malgin's LJ account first was hijacked by unknown parties, then “returned” by Hell, ostensibly as a gesture of good will. Malgin, believing Hell was behind the hacking, refused to let bygones be bygones. His excessive attempts to “deanonimize” [ru] Hell (at one point [ru], he visited another blogger's home, accompanied by a lawyer, on the erroneous belief that this was the mysterious hacker) led to the account getting hijacked again. This time, Hell did not give it back. The two engaged in low level warfare, which culminated in Hell — for whom no subject is taboo – blaming Malgin for the suicide of his daughter [ru].

Screenshot of Hacker Hell's webpage (23 July 2012).

Another vendetta developed between Hell and Vladimir Pribylovsky [ru], the quirky proprietor of Anticompromat (a RuNet clearing house of political and internet rumors). Pribylovsky, another of Hell's victims, embarked on a mission to locate the man behind the name. At the moment, he believes that he has discovered Hell's real identity as a Russian national living in Germany. The evidence is lengthy, but fairly circumstantial [ru].Pribylovsky is also one of the main believers that Hell's attacks are politically motivated, not acts of random Internet vandalism. Although the evidence is once again tenuous, it does appear that liberal, or at least opposition-minded social and political activists are recently over-represented among Hell's targets. For instance, Hell recently hacked the LJ account of protest organizer and mystery writer Boris Akunin [ru], deleting all of his entries. Other notable liberal victims have included Oleg Panfilov and Valeria Novodvorskaya. Nationalist bloggers are also in danger, as shown by Hell's attacks on nationalist figure Vladimir Tor.

Alexey Navalny visits camp of opposition in Moscow, 24 May 2012, photo by Anton Belitskiy, copyright © Demotix.

The story is complicated by the fact that Hell has sometimes returned stolen LJ accounts to users hacked by others. Beneficiaries include pro-Kremlin blogger and counterculture writer Eduard Bagirov, sci-fi writer Oleg Divov, Irkutsk history professor Sergei Shmidt, and rather surprisingly Irina Vorobyeva, a member of the opposition and former Yabloko youth activist. (Irina publicly thanked [ru] Hell in her returned blog.) Of course, it is quite possible that Hell himself was both the villain and the hero in these situations. Regardless, the opposition has little patience for such nuances: during the most recent imbroglio, Navalny claimed [ru] that FSB was using Hell to leak emails it acquired after its raid on his apartment.

If Hell is indeed being used by the FSB [ru], we can expect to see more “hacks” of the opposition leaders whose computers were confiscated in the June 11 raids [en] (Ilya Yashin, Ksenia Sobchak, and others). Even if this happens, however, we will never know with absolute certainty who is behind it. Although Hell denies his involvement with the Kremlin, he does not deny his antipathy toward the Russian opposition movement. His desire to incite outrage and induce reaction can easily characterize him as either a Kremlin shill or a professional troll. This, of course, is a perennial problem of Russian politics and the Russian Internet.

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