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Ukrainian engineers fight to keep internet online

IT professionals in Ukraine are working tirelessly and at great risk to keep the country connected to the internet during the Russian invasion

Data and communications industry engineers have been working from bomb shelters and running out to repair internet cables when bombing stops in Ukraine’s border cities, where the fight against the Russian invasion is sustained by continued communications.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s software and computer services industry body has declared that it continues to serve international corporate customers, even while they, along with the comms engineers who are keeping the national infrastructure running, evacuate the cities that have suffered the worst missile and artillery attacks from Russian forces, and those that have fallen under the invaders’ control.

As Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, endured a bombardment last Thursday that the BBC said subsequently had “reduced it to rubble”, the chief executive of a datacentre operator told Computer Weekly how he was trying to arrange for his workers and their families to escape and move West.

“The situation is terrible,” said Dmitro Deineka, CEO of ITL DC, from his headquarters in Bulgaria. “You must understand, Russia is bombarding civilian targets and communications infrastructure with cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and bombs.

“There are fires in the city. In some places, there is no electricity or water. Our engineers and part of our support team work from bomb shelters.

“They are the coolest guys. They just do the usual work. We have, of course, asked our engineers not to stay in the datacentre. The situation is very difficult for them psychologically.”

Deineka said the engineers had secured the datacentre and copied its customer data to sites in other cities, before the bombardment began. But now they and his relatives in his home city were trying to get out.

Ivan Butenko, chief technology officer of Omega Telecom, said his engineers had been risking their lives to make repairs when Russian bombs broke the cables that make up the communications network by which it serves 140 Ukrainian cities.

“It’s not easy,” he said. “Too much fibre has been cut. It’s hard to recover. But we continue to support our datacentres and networks in Ukraine.

“We will do everything to keep the connections working. All employees of Ukrainian telecoms companies are working to restore services. Information is now very important for our inhabitants.

“It’s really dangerous. Some cities have been without communications for several days. When hostilities cease, engineers repair the networks.”

Russia has been trying to destroy the Ukrainian television services which have been informing people about the invasion, and has launched attacks on communications towers through which old television radio signals were still being transmitted, alongside digital and internet services. 

Mikhail Dmitrichenko, chief operating officer at Volia, a national digital television and internet operator, said his engineers and field technicians were heroes for going out to keep services running. 

He was nonplussed by Russian attacks on TV towers. “Sometimes I think they are stuck in the Soviet Union,” he said. “They think TV towers are key.”

Volia had been supplying televisions and Wi-Fi to bomb shelters where people are living in Ukraine’s major cities, it said in a statement . It was also supplying free internet to customers who could not afford to pay for it. The Ukrainian State Special Information Service (SSIS) urged telcos last week not to disconnect people who could not pay their bills.

Ukraine was under sustained cyber attacks for the whole of February, before Russia’s invasion on 24 February, according to the SSIS. Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine minister of digital transformation, responded with a call for an “IT army” of volunteer hackers to launch attacks on Russia. Nearly 300,000 people have since subscribed to the IT army of Ukraine news feed on the Telegram instant messaging service, where the government publishes details of Russian internet services for them to attack.

People in the IT industry have joined that fight, said Konstantin Vasyuk, executive director at IT Ukraine Association, which represents Ukraine’s export software and computer services industry.

“This is a real fight, not only on the front, but a real fight on the economic sphere,” he told Computer Weekly. “We will fight in the IT sphere. We will fight all the possible ways with the invader.”

IT workers who have military experience have joined the army, and those with cyber security skills have joined the IT army, said Vasyuk, and, unbelievably, the rest were continuing to serve their international customers.

IT companies had made contingency plans to move people to safe places so they could keep working after the war broke out, he added. Most companies had evacuated people from the most dangerous cities, and the top 500 international companies were lending support by keeping up their demands for Ukrainian IT services, he said.

The IT Ukraine Association issued a call today for a worldwide boycott of Russian technology suppliers. “Stop doing business with Russian IT companies, because they finance this war,” said Vasyuk.

Many Ukrainian software firms had “diversified their risk” by setting up offices in up to 20 other countries, he said, and the national communications infrastructure was still running despite sustained cyber and bombing attacks.

“Right now, everything works,” he said. “They cannot shut down the whole of Ukraine. It’s impossible.”

Ukraine’s digital transformation minister has called for the Russian internet addressing system to be effectively shut down, and its security effectively disabled, to stop its cyber attacks and propaganda promoting the invasion of Ukraine, and to make its services vulnerable to attack from Ukrainian hackers.

But the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the organisation responsible for maintaining the core address system of the internet, refused, saying that the request was technically and politically impossible, and that it would undermine the internet’s own raison d’être.

Google similarly said it had blocked some Russian state media from YouTube, but continued to supply most of its services in Russian “to provide access to global information and perspectives”.

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