“We are unstoppable”: how a team of Polish programmers built a digital tool to evade Russian censorship

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Over the past two weeks, as the Kremlin has increasingly tightened its control over independent media and censored information about its invasion of Ukraine, people around the world have used a new tool to send messages to random Russian citizens about the reality of the ongoing war.

The tool was developed by a team of Polish programmers, The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week, which obtained tens of millions of phone numbers and email addresses linked to Russian users. Users can send random messages to database users or send pre-written messages in Russian.

The Record reached out to the group, which calls itself Squad303, with questions about their efforts on Monday. The group was slow to respond – they had fended off a distributed denial of service attack, while trying to deal with a massive influx of users who had read about the tool in various news outlets. A rep for the band responded, saying they would contact him soon. After three days of follow-up, the rep called Wednesday night using the encrypted messaging app Wickr. His video was on, but his face was covered with a black mask and he appeared to be standing in front of a white wall. He spoke English with a heavy accent.

The rep talked about the background of the group – Squad303 refers to a unit of the British Royal Airforce made up of Polish pilots who participated in the Battle of Britain during the Second World War. The group signs e-mail correspondence with the name “Jan Zumbach” – a Polish-Swiss wartime fighter pilot – and the group’s home domain “1920.in” outnumbers the Polish forces that have defeated a Soviet invasion during the Soviet-Polish period of 1919-1920. War. The conversation below has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

A page from the group’s site. PHOTO: SQUAD303

The Record: Who is ‘Squad303’ and how did this tool come about?

Squad303: We started as a group of friends, a group of Polish friends. Experts in cybersecurity and communication. We started 12 days ago. Now we have a team of nearly 100 people from different countries. From Estonia, Kyiv, Ukraine, Russia, UK, Germany, France, Poland and USA. We have a lot of people from the United States. We have people from South America and even one from Japan. So it’s growing very fast. And right now the biggest challenge is trying to manage it somehow. You know, we’re in different time zones, different people, people we don’t know. It’s an exciting project and we’re super exhausted, but super happy at the same time because we know it’s intensifying and growing every day. We have more and more traffic streams and more and more people are texting, WhatsApp messages and emails to randomly selected Russians. When war broke out, like millions around the world, we wanted to help. We realized that we would do our best if we used our skills and experience.

This is how the first version of our website was created, which allowed us to send SMS to randomly selected Russians. Over time, other versions have emerged: to send messages via Whatsapp and email.

TR: Is the band still mainly based in Poland?

Squad303: The core team, yes – the founding team. We try to use our supporters, our global members, to focus on development and communication. And thanks to them, we don’t have to think about a lot of things. They have tasks and they deliver. So it looks like we’re on the right track.

But imagine building a business from zero to millions of customers, in this case, in twelve days. Your team ranges from a few people to almost hundreds and you work in every time zone on the planet, and during the day you have to go to your office to do something to earn money.

TR: Do your members know any identifying information about each other? Or do you remain anonymous to each other?

Squad303: As for the hard core, yes, we’re friends, so we’ve known each other for years. In the case of all these people and the people who support us, we do not know their names. We do not know their phone numbers. We have ad hoc defense communicator groups. But it’s anonymous.

TR: How do you select information and how does it appear to recipients?

Squad303: It is the broadcasters who decide how they want to contact the Russians. They can choose between SMS, WhatsApp and email.

The first messages were our idea, but now we work with professionals in this type of communication. We will continue to make significant changes to message content. They will be much friendlier. In each case, our tool suggests the content of the message. In the case of emails, we encourage users to send Russians an open letter written by scientists from the Russian Academy of Sciences and signed by 7,000 scientists. A letter condemning the war started by Putin. The authors of this letter cannot send it themselves because they have been arrested and the letter has been removed from the Russian Internet.

TR: Do you receive funds from an organization or are you supported by only one?

Squad303: No, we have funds to finance these projects at this time. It’s going to be much more difficult soon because we started with only one server and at the moment we have 16 servers and it’s still not enough. In the future, we may need funding, but we can’t worry about that now. Every day we receive dozens of messages from people who would like to support us in some way, but at the moment we don’t need funds, we need sleep.

TR: What happened today?

Squad303: Today we had another Russian DDoS attack. At the moment we are protected by the cloud, so this is not a problem for us. On the other hand, we have more and more evidence that the Kremlin is trying to retaliate to stop us.

This is the most important news for us because we know we are succeeding. The project is a problem for the Kremlin. We know we are well placed. What does it mean that we have proof of it? This means that yesterday we noticed that they started a network-level censorship program, which means that all Russian protocols are involved. It means that there is a decision maker somewhere who is able to force them to do so. As of yesterday, we know that they are filtering the messages we send to Russia. So basically for maybe 60 minutes every single person in the world who sent predefined text messages from our website the messages weren’t sent due to the size of the program in Russia. The receivers received only a pound sign, nothing more. When we noticed it, we changed all our content – every predefined text message. We have new content and at the moment we have monitoring, which lets us know if they are filtering more messages. Then we can edit the message again.

So, you know, they hunt rabbits. They try to catch up but they are too slow. At the moment it looks like they need six hours to implement new content. So every six hours we have to change text messages so that they can successfully deliver to Russia.

TR: Did you expect the tool to take off like this?

Squad303: No we do not have [laughter]. It was amazing to see all these people. We said to ourselves that there are people on this planet who would like to get involved, who would like to support the Ukrainians who would like to fight. We knew they couldn’t buy guns and shoot Russians, so we had the idea that they would engage, that they would be part of Operation Russia, but we didn’t know that. It was something incredible.

TR: How was maintenance handled?

Squad303: You know, every morning I swear. In the end, it’s not about us, we just created a simple tool. It’s about movement. In the past, you could read on Anonymous and you could hate them or like them or admire them, but you couldn’t join them because you’re not a programmer, for example. We now know that every person on the planet can join Anonymous using our tool and it is an official line of communication created and accepted by Anonymous. So we changed the way people interact with Anonymous. Before, it was all about hacking, and now it’s about communication. Our project is a non-violent information operation. You don’t need to be a hacker.

Soon we will release a new feature, allowing people to call randomly selected Russians. We are trying to build more and more communication channels so that people can interact with Russians in different ways. This is not a one-way communication project. We believe that we are building bridges of communication between the people of the free world and the people of Russia. Every text message sent to Russia is a gateway, even if they don’t reply to you instantly. They are able to do it in a day, a week, a month.

Russia cannot stop us, it cannot cut the communication network. So I hope that one day all their smartphones will be infected with messages from abroad and we can change something for the country.

[Editor’s note: Sqaud303 shared its allegiance to Anonymous and other subsets of the well-known collective on Twitter Tuesday — signing an open letter directed at Putin and other Russian officials as well as a press release to the public.]

TR: What challenges do you expect in the weeks and days to come? Will they get worse?

Squad303: It is difficult to plan anything because every day brings new challenges. Today it took six hours, tomorrow we don’t know what will happen, but we have to be ready.

We are open source, which means that we share the source code of the truth with others at this time. It’s one of the most popular sources on GitHub, and GitHub is the most popular platform for sharing source code. There are hundreds of programmers around the world working on similar tools with the same capabilities – tools in different languages, tools for different communities, different nations. We are like a virus. We are unstoppable.

Emma Vail is a writing intern for The Record. She is currently studying Anthropology and Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Northeastern University. After creating her own blog in 2018, she decided to embark on journalism and deepen her experience by joining the team.

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