Russia hacked: problematic sources for insights on conflicts in Ukraine and the South Caucasus

2019-06-11 09:30
School of International Studies, University of Trento

In recent years, high-level leaks and hacks have featured prominently in media reporting. Russia has been repeatedly blamed for carrying out cyber-attacks against a variety of actors in Western countries, including the US Democratic party and then-presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron in France. However, Russian government actors have themselves been repeatedly hacked in recent years, including by alleged Ukrainian hacker groups and others (e.g. #SurkovLeaks). People associated with the de facto authorities in the Donbas region have also been hacked.

Hacks and leaks pose both ethical and methodological challenges for researchers. Firstly, should researchers use hacked or leaked materials at all? Feeding into the debate emerged in IR scholarship after the publication of US department cables by WikiLeaks, this paper addresses the ethical issues related to using these sources in cases where hacked accounts include - beyond issues directly related to government and conflicts - personal correspondence and documents. Having defined the self-imposed ethical limitations, as well as the methodological concerns related to dealing with large amounts of contents of unverified origin that cannot be fully processed by individual researchers, this papers outlines some of the insights that emegerge from these materials making specific reference to contested areas where Russian involvement is an important component of ongoing conflict dynamics (Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Donbas).

Giorgio Comai
Researcher, data analyst