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Russia's Hacker Collective That Wasn't

Who is backing Russia's newest "hacker" group? Who's the intended audience for their activity? Images mixed by author.

Who is backing Russia's newest “hacker” group, named after “Humpty Dumpty”? Who's the intended audience for their activity? Images mixed by author.

There is an Internet group in Russia that publishes compromising political information that the public was never supposed to see. For the past six months, a collective that calls itself “Anonymous International,” and also goes by the name “Shaltay-Boltay” (translation: Humpty-Dumpty), has disclosed internal government memos, hacked email archives, and “insider” analytical reports about rivalries within the Kremlin. The group opened a Twitter account on December 4, 2013, and launched a blog eight days later, on the twentieth anniversary of Russia’s current constitution. On December 31, for its first publication, Anonymous International posted the transcript of Vladimir Putin’s New Year’s Eve speech, hours before he actually delivered it.

Shaltay’s work, which has attracted a small but growing readership in Russia, found its way into the Western media earlier this month, when the group published emails corroborating a September 2013 investigative report in Novaya Gazeta claiming that a Kremlin-connected businessman has assembled a “troll army” to pollute the comments sections on English-language news websites.

There is a lot of interesting stuff in the materials on Shaltay’s blog. You can see the Kremlin’s instructions to Russian television about how to report on the annexation of Crimea, peruse the private emails of the rebel commander in eastern Ukraine, and read a 180-page-long Kremlinologist analysis of the power struggles between the warring “towers” of influence in the Russian government. You can find all this, and more, on their website.

But who are the people behind Anonymous International? The confusion about these individuals’ identity is so basic that reporters can’t even decide what to call them. Because the group publishes secret documents, including stolen email archives, journalists are eager to describe Shaltay as a “hacker” collective. Someone clearly hacked those email accounts, after all, so it follows that the people who published the data are responsible for the theft.

Shaltay’s representatives, however, keep telling reporters in interviews that they’re not really hackers. “We’re not hackers,” one of the group’s members told Vladimir Dergachev on June 9. “The majority of our activity is not the technical part,” the individual elaborated. Days earlier, another Shaltay spokesperson told BuzzFeed’s Max Seddon that the group isn’t composed of “hackers in the classical sense.”

If Shaltay doesn’t get its materials by breaking into the Kremlin’s digital vaults, there’s only one alternative: somebody is handing them the information. In other words, Anonymous International is funneling leaks from people connected to these issues. In fact, Shaltay’s representatives have been quite open about this, though they intimate that the group’s sources are middle-ranking whistleblowers who have soured on the Kremlin’s policy changes in Putin’s third term. “The source for a large amount of our files are the ‘good guys,’” one Shaltay member told Ilya Shepelin at Slon.ru, saying that there are all kinds of “saboteurs” in the government.

Until someone unmasks the Shaltay collective, Russians will continue “scratching their heads and trading guesses,” says journalist Aleksandr Morozov. Some have tried to determine who might be backing the group by establishing which officials are absent in the leaks. Slon.ru’s Ilya Shepelin, for instance, accuses Shaltay of ignoring Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Alexey Gromov. Others have recalled an emails-leak in 2012, when anonymous hackers released compromising letters between Kremlin-youth functionaries. The leak is now regarded as part of a coordinated campaign by Vyacheslav Volodin against Vladislav Surkov in what was the former’s struggle for the first-deputy-chief-of-staff spot in the Kremlin.

Oleg Kashin, May 15, 2014, Facebook.

Journalist Oleg Kashin recommends paying close attention to government personnel changes in the coming future, to study whom Shaltay’s leaks might be benefiting and harming. “I think the whole market for hackers’ services is linked closely either with the intelligence agencies or the President’s Administration,” Kashin told Vladimir Dergachev. “I’m unable to imagine a bunch of Robin Hoods who gut other people’s emails for fun or in the name of Good.”

Judging by the five documents Shaltay leaked earlier this week, the infighting and intrigue in Russia’s government is byzantine indeed. According to the Russian website The Insider, the “Information-Analytical Reports” published on Shaltay’s blog are confidential materials produced for Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s chief of staff. The reports contain a weekly roundup of political events significant to Russia, saturated in commentary and speculation about which interest groups, or “towers,” are gaining and losing influence on particular issues. If there is any shred of truth to the analysis, it’s easy to see why identifying the clans backing a “hacker collective” would be tricky business indeed.

While you're racking your brains, trying to figure out if the people at Shaltay-Boltay are “Robin Hoods” or hired guns, take a moment to appreciate that the group has accomplished one thing beyond dispute: it's taken a name coined in the bland, globalese jargon of the hacker world and made “Anonymous International” into something unique, unpredictable, and quintessentially Russian.

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