Robokals have become a modern plague, a destroyer of focus, a nuisance that is somehow impossible to eradicate. But perhaps they can at least be repurposed to deal a very small and somewhat absurd blow to the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by the Russian government.
Today, a group of international hacktivists launched the website WasteRussianTime.today, designed to unite pranks and robots in an automated weapon of telephone annoyance aimed at the Russian state. Visit the site, push a button, and it will go through the leaks of Russian government, military and intelligence phones to connect two random Russian officials – and allow a site visitor to silently listen to how these officials spend time trying to figure out why they are talking to each other and who initiated the call.
“We hope for confusion, that they are annoyed, and that people who speak Russian can even listen to interesting calls,” said one of the creators of a site called Shera. The group of artists, activists and coders behind the site, according to Sher, is called “Shaherazade’s Tangled Dreams.” “This war started inside Moscow and St. Petersburg, in Putin’s power circle, and that’s who we want to annoy and hinder.”
Since Russia launched a full-scale war in Ukraine on February 24, hackers working independently and even united by the Ukrainian government have conducted an unprecedented campaign of hacking operations against Russian organizations, some of which have led to the theft and leak of hundreds of gigabytes of email Russians and other private information. At one point, the Ukrainian government itself published a list of names and contact details of 620 Russian intelligence agents.
Now, combing through this pile of leaked information, stealing phone numbers from emails and combining the results with results found in other public sources, the creators of WasteRussianTime.today say they have collected more than 5,000 Russian state phone numbers, both landline. and mobile phones, including members of the Russian military police, members of its parliament known as the Duma, and even the Federal Security Service of Russia or the FSB – all of which are now objects of its automated robot bell campaign.
WasteRussianTime.today is designed to start a VoIP call, automatically dial 40 of the tracked phone numbers and combine the user into a three-way call with the first two phones of Russian officials connecting. The creators of the site say they have decided not to allow site visitors to talk on the phone, fearing that they may say something that could identify themselves and endanger. So instead, the site functions as a kind of art installation, allowing visitors to silently watch and enjoy spam calls. “Join the civil intervention against the war,” the website said. “When you’re talking on the phone, you can’t drop bombs or coordinate soldiers.”
During a dozen WIRED test calls on the site just before it was launched, the site’s creators still seemed to be fixing some bugs. The site only worked on the desktop, and most calls resulted in at least one audio message with a non-working number. About half of the calls were picked up by at least one confused Russian-speaker. But in just one call two people picked up the phone, and one hung up before the other started talking. Shera says the site’s developers will eventually tweak it to detect and weed out broken numbers.