Belarusian independent journalists work in a rather unusual situation. Though they had to face the choice between fleeing the country or getting jailed in the wake of the 2020 democratic protests, they now have access to data any investigator could only dream of.

Due to the anonymous group of hacktivists, investigative journalism in Belarus is more prosperous than ever.

However, is it ethical to use a hacked passport database of the whole country? And how does it work in the first place? 

Who are the hacktivists, and what they did

Shortly after the Belarusian protests of 2020, the Cyber Partisans anonymous hacktivist group appeared on Telegram. They started to regularly claim responsibility for different cyberattacks on governmental organisations and officials: from hacking a website or an email to getting access to a vast database or breaking into the servers of the Belarusian railway system to slow down the movements of Russian troops in Belarus. 

A year later, the state Supreme Court labelled the group as a terrorist organisation. At that moment, they were already working with independent journalists, providing them with the information on their requests. Yuliana Shemetovets, a spokesperson for Cyber Partisans, shared with The Fix a list of 21 governmental databases hacktivists possess. It includes the Belarus passport system and traffic police database, all the phone numbers in the country, flight tickets, registered cars and housing, personnel files of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the ministry’s video database, and much more. 

The databases are said to be raw, and the Cyber Partisans lack the resources to process all the data, especially those in video or audio type. It could very well be true: when I was trying to find a car’s owner by a part of its number plate for the investigation for Mediazona.Belarus, the hacktivists could provide only an excel table with a list of potential cars displayed as an unreadable text of thousands of characters without spaces. 

The hacktivists are anonymous; even their spokesperson says she knows neither the name of a single person in the team nor the countries they live in. 

How the hacktivists and journalists work together

Before working with a journalist, the Cyber Partisans verify a person through their previous work and acquaintance with public figures like politicians. The group is also in contact with the outlets’ editors-in-chief who can verify their journalists. “There are not as many outlets, there are not as many investigative journalists in Belarus, so the network is quite small, and we practically know everyone,” says Yuliana Shemetovets.

She also shares that the group declined to work with a journalist on a few occasions, though the hacktivists don’t remember the details. However, she remembers some requests from people claiming to be working in a civil society organisation which the Cyber Partisans couldn’t verify to exist. “They were likely trying to dig some information on the opposition figures or just regular people in the opposition movement, not on the people working for the regime”, believes the spokesperson.

After the verification, journalists usually communicate with the hacktivists through the Telegram bot. However, if the communication is regular, the Partisans establish a chat where the admin account is unavailable for other users (Telegram added such a feature in 2021). It was the case with myself when I was doing an investigation for the Mediazona.Belarus and with Aleksey Karpeka, Staff Researcher & Journalist at the Belarusian Investigative Center (BIC)

In the chat or through the Telegram bot, journalists request specific information, which the hacktivists then try to find in their data. For instance, it could be the passport data of an official or a businessman closely tied to Lukashenka, Belarus’ self-proclaimed president, or documents related to a specific company. Aleksey Karpeka told The Fix that through such requests, his team found out that after being sanctioned by the EU, Belarusian oligarch Alexei Oleksin transferred part of the shares in his company to his sister’s husband. Before, journalists couldn’t find out who this person was and how he was related to Oleksin through open sources. Karpeka believes that “without Cyber Partisans, it wouldn’t have worked.”

Yuliana Shemetovets, the group’s spokesperson, explains its rules on sharing the data: journalists need to provide a reason for their request and give as much information on a person they are looking for as possible. This way, hacktivists ensure they provide journalists with data only for people related to the authorities. “Cyber Partisans announced from the beginning that they provide the info only on people who collaborate with the regime”, says Shemetovets. 

There are a few exceptions to this rule. First, checking if a person in the opposition movement or a candidate for a position in the organisation has any ties to the authorities. Second, finding people detained for political reasons and relatives, which is especially helpful for human rights organisations. 

For example, in the spring of 2022 Belarusian police brutally detained four people who were said to sabotage the work of a railway road. Soon, an opposition railway workers organisation gave the names of three of them. As a correspondent of Mediazona.Belarus at the time, I reached out to Cyber Partisans, asking for more information on these people. The hacktivists provided me with their previous places of work and their parents’ work, too. This way, I found out that the father of one of the detainees worked as the head of the economic crimes police department in the region. 

Aleksey Karpeka says that his team, which is a part of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) network, works with the data very carefully. “We don’t publish addresses, even in our articles about Lukashenka’s wallets. For example, in the last investigation about the sanctioned oligarch’s real estate in Austria. We publish the documents, but we erase the addresses. Because who knows, knows. Our task is to show that they have it,” explains the journalist.

The same goes for underage people — BIC could mention such a person if it is needed to prove the connections between people tied to the regime, but they don’t publish any kids’ personal details.

Asked about the most memorable information found with the hacktivists, Aleksey Karpeka recalls a story about the oligarch Oleksin. With the group’s help, the journalists discovered that Oleksin had presented Lukashenka with nine cars in one day. One of them was a custom-made BMW with an official flag inside, a picture of Lukashenka’s palaces on the dashboard, and more. “I started digging and found a picture of this car on the Instagram page of the manufacturer,” says Karpeka. He then reached out to the manufacturer, but they declined to give details and only shared that the order was from Russia. “That was the first time we had such a “wow” with the help of partisans. I mean, before, we used to run passport details, look at real estate, this kind of stuff, but this was a separate, ready-made story”, explains Karpeka.

The spokesperson of the group told The Fix that several English-speaking journalists also requested some information from the hacktivists, but they were usually interested in ties of a specific company with the Belarusian regime. “Or when we published recordings of some embassies, they also asked me if I had them on the US or Russian embassy. In most cases, we just don’t have this information, or we haven’t found it yet [in the datasets we have]”, says Shemetovets.

She also shares that a few months ago, the hacktivists started a YouTube channel in collaboration with journalists with short videos and investigations. In addition, the Cyber Partisans have their own channel, where they publish some of the hacked data, such as audio and video recordings of police executives. These leaks reportedly led to some dismissals and demotions, but these claims are practically unverifiable. 

Is it ethical to use databases with sensitive information?

The situation where the hacktivists collected such a scope of sensitive data and are open to sharing it with the journalists, even under specific conditions, is tricky from an ethical point of view. Compared with famous investigations, such as Panama Papers, which was a leak of one company’s documents, not a hacked governmental database, Aleksey Karpeka believes it to be a unique story. “We at BIC work closely with OCCRP and ICIG [International Consortium of Investigative Journalists], two largest associations of investigative journalists in the world. Working with them, I realise that the access the Cyber Partisans give us is pretty unique. A passports database allows us to uncover many things that were previously only rumours or insider information. For investigative journalism, access to such databases is a gigantic stroke of luck,” believes the journalist.

He doesn’t think that having access to the sensitive data of any Belarusian violates journalistic ethics simply because journalists don’t use this information for anything. As he explains, while searching for a person he has only a name and a surname of, the Cyber Partisans provide him with a list of people, and he tries to guess the right one. If he accidentally checks the information of another person, he just deletes it and moves on. “The data will never be used, and there will be no harm to the individual,” he says.

Yuliana Shemetovets also believes the work of Cyber Partisans to be ethical. She points out that the officials “didn’t try to protect this data”, so the hacktivists do this now. Shemetovets provides an example, saying that the passport system data is isolated from the internet server and will be given to the newly elected democratic government “when the time comes.” 

The spokesperson also says that everyone in the Cyber Partisans team signs a Code of Conduct. There are “a handful of people” outside the group with partial access to databases, but “all their actions are visible for the founders of the CP”. Shemetovets claims that there was not a single case in two years when the data from the hacktivists were used against ordinary citizens.

“We believe the data can be helpful after all the crimes the regime committed against people, and not only Belarusians but Ukrainians as well. We need to show Belarusians what people are working for the regime. Before, the regime people knew everything about Belarusians, and now an average journalist has more access to sensitive or personal information than the average police officer. We can show Belarusians what ethical characteristics people in the regime have, how they make decisions, their motivation, what they did to stay loyal, and what benefits they have. And it is important for the nation to understand who is in charge,” believes the spokesperson.