As cyberattack hit, Ukrainians turned to Facebook, Google
BORYSPIL, Ukraine – When departure information disappeared from Kiev airport’s website after last week’s cyberattack, employees trained a camera on the departure board and broadcast it to YouTube. When government servers were switched off, officials posted updates to Facebook. And with the disruption continuing, office workers have turned to Gmail to keep their businesses going.
As Ukraine’s digital infrastructure shuddered under the weight of last Tuesday’s cyberattack, Silicon Valley firms played an outsize role in keeping information flowing, an illustration both of their vast reach and their unofficial role as a kind of emergency backup system. Google’s mail service has been keeping the lights on at some firms after their email servers down, while Facebook is credited as a critical platform for digital first responders.
“Our war room, nationwide, migrated to Facebook,” said Andrey Chigarkin, the chief information security officer at a Kiev-based gaming firm and active participant in the early hours of the online response. “All the news – bad, good – was coming through Facebook.”
Facebook has a relatively low take up in Ukraine, counting between 8 to 9 million monthly active users compared to 10 to 15 million in Poland, a neighbor of roughly the same size, according to figures provided by analytics firm SocialBakers. But it’s still a powerful medium there and is credited with being an accelerant for the protest movement that toppled the Russia-friendly leader Viktor Yanukovich in 2014. Today, government agencies regularly post official statements to their Facebook walls and press officers eschew emails to chat with journalists over Facebook Messenger.
“Facebook in Ukraine is a big thing,” said Dmytro Shymkiv, the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential administration and a former director of Microsoft Ukraine.
Shymkiv was among the many officials to post updates about the outbreak as it happened (to Facebook, naturally.) In an interview at his office, he said that “the cloud” – a marketing term for the pool of sometimes free computing power offered by the likes of Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon and many others – provided the safety and redundancy that many businesses in Ukraine lacked.
“It’s a global backup,” he said, adding that, as a former tech executive, he knew that Silicon Valley firms put an “enormous focus on the security of the cloud services.”
Private businesses and even government offices are still relying at least in part on Silicon Valley firms’ email and chat services, mainly as a substitute for downed mail servers. Victor Zhora, the chief executive of Kiev-based Infosafe, said two of the firms he’s helping to recover from the outbreak have switched to Gmail as they try to get back on their feet. In one pediatric clinic in the Kharkivskyi area of Kiev, Dr. Lidiia Podkopaieva says staff turned to Facebook-owned WhatsApp to coordinate their work at the facility after half their computers were wiped out.
Some workarounds were more creative than others.
At Boryspil Airport, outside Kiev, officials faced a quandary when they switched off their automated systems Tuesday. Although the airport was operating smoothly, anxious passengers could no longer access departure information from the web.
“So in front of the departure board we set up a webcam which broadcast the board to the web and to our Facebook page,” senior airport official Yevhenii Dykhne said in an interview this week. “We got 10,000 views on YouTube.”
Infrastructure Minister Volodymyr Omelyan said the outbreak had shown that the Silicon Valley’s “cloud” was much more resilient “than a Ukrainian physical server standing alone in a post office,” a reference to one of Ukraine’s worst-hit agencies.
But he expressed reservations about leaning too heavily on American computing power in times of need. After all, what would happen if a differently tailored cyberattack brought the cloud crashing down?
“Definitely we should build a much more sustainable network in case of emergency,” he said. “We cannot just rely on Facebook as a backup.”