6 September 2021

Hackers, state propagandists target The Bell

Our very own The Bell fell victim to an attack this week: first from hackers, then state propagandists. Russia’s leading cyber-security experts are investigating the cyber-intrusion on our website and we’ll share the results as soon as possible.

  • Subscribers to The Bell’s daily Russian-language newsletter received an email Thursday that we did not write and did not send. The fake text said it was written by The Bell’s editorial board, and urged readers to boycott upcoming parliamentary elections.
  • To say we were shocked was an understatement — nothing like this has happened since The Bell was set-up in 2017. We released an announcement that the newsletter was a forgery and had nothing to do with our journalists or editors, emphasizing The Bell does not take part in political activities or encourage our readers to take sides. Our sole aim is to provide objective information.
  • Leading Russian cyber-security firms immediately offered their help and we chose Group-IB to investigate how the hack took place. Group-IB is one of the biggest cyber-security firms in Russia and reportedly one of the seven most influential in the world. We may be obliged to take the findings of their investigation to the police.
  • One of the most important questions for us was whether subscriber data had been compromised. As far as we are aware, the intruders did not manage to access this information. We operate our mailing via a mail-agent and, even if you gain access to this mail-agent, it’s impossible to get to the address list. The attackers reached the mail-agent — but not our reader database.
  • The hack was not an isolated incident. There was also a cyber-attack on our site last week that took us offline for several hours. And, a few weeks before that, a forged power of attorney was used to obtain the call records of The Bell investigative reporter Irina Pankratova (she informed the police).
  • Another alarming development (again suggesting this was part of a coordinated campaign rather than a one-off) was a propaganda ‘attack’ that followed hackers sending the fake newsletter. State-owned television channel Rossiya-24 broadcast a report Thursday evening hinting The Bell should be designated a ‘foreign agent’ (an official label that means significant financial burdens and making the work of journalists much harder). The Rossiya-24 presenter also alleged we wrote the fake newsletter ourselves and then invented a cover story (for the avoidance of doubt, this is untrue — we were hacked).

Why the world should care: Although we do not know who was behind this attack, it’s clear the aim was to intimidate. It goes without saying that such pressure on independent media is unacceptable and that we will continue to strive to provide our readers with objective reporting.