Robocalls have become a modern scourge, the destroyer of focus, the nuisance that somehow cannot be eradicated. But perhaps they can, at least, be repurposed to strike a very small and slightly absurd blow against the Russian government’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Today, a group of international hacktivists launched a website, WasteRussianTime.today, designed to combine prank calling and robocalling into an automated weapon of telephonic annoyance targeted at the Russian state. Visit the site, click a button, and it will cycle through a leaked list of Russian government, military, and intelligence phone numbers to connect two random Russian officials—and allow the site’s visitor to silently listen in as those officials waste their time trying to figure out why they’re speaking to each other and who initiated the call.
“We’re hoping for confusion, that they get annoyed, and that these might even be interesting calls to listen to for people who speak Russian,” says one of the site’s creators who goes by the name Shera. The group of artists, activists, and coders behind the site is, according to Shera, called the Obfuscated Dreams of Scheherazade. “This war started inside Moscow and St. Petersburg, within the power circle of Putin, and that’s who we want to annoy and disturb.”
Since Russia began its full-scale war in Ukraine on February 24, hacktivists working independently and even rallied by the Ukrainian government have carried out an unprecedented campaign of hacking operations targeting Russian organizations, some of which have resulted in the theft and leak of hundreds of gigabytes of Russians’ emails and other private information. The Ukrainian government itself at one point released a list of what it said were the names and contact details of 620 Russian intelligence agents.
Now, by combing through that pile of leaked information, scraping phone numbers from emails, and combining the results with those found in other public sources, the creators of WasteRussianTime.today say they’ve assembled more than 5,000 Russian government phone numbers, both landlines and cell phones, including members of the Russian military police, staff of its parliament, known as the Duma, and even Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB—all of which are now targets of its automated robo-dialing campaign.
WasteRussianTime.today is designed to work by starting a VoIP call, automatically dialing 40 of the leaked phone numbers, and merging the user into a three-way call with the first two Russian officials’ phones that connect. The site’s creators say they decided not to let visitors to the site actually speak on the calls, for fear that they might say something that could identify and endanger themselves. So instead, the site functions as a kind of performance art installation, allowing visitors to silently observe and enjoy its spam calls. “Join the civil intervention against war,” a message on the site reads. “If you’re on the phone, you can’t drop bombs or coordinate soldiers.”
In WIRED’s dozen or so test calls on the site just before its launch, it still seemed to be ironing out some issues. It only worked on desktop, and many of the calls resulted in at least one voicemail message, with silence on one end of the line, or two voicemail messages speaking to each other. In about half the calls, at least one confused Russian-speaking person did pick up. But in only one call did two people pick up the phone, and due to a delay one hung up before the other started speaking. Shera said the developers were looking into a possible latency issue.