Throughout Tuesday and into Wednesday, many of the hacked sites remained unavailable or intermittently accessible, as a battle unfolded between hackers and site owners, with each attempting to wrest control from the other by adjusting the domain name system (DNS) settings for the hacked sites. Website disruptions varied geographically, complicated by DNS registries in different parts of the world receiving updates at different intervals.
The affected domain names were all registered through Australia-based Melbourne IT, which confirmed Wednesday that its systems had been compromised by hackers. The company said Wednesday that it had restored the hacked DNS credentials, locked those records to prevent further changes, disabled the legitimate account credentials that hackers had used to access its systems, and continued to investigate the intrusion.
The hack attacks come as the United States and its allies -- including the Arab League, Australia, Britain, France, Italy, Saudi Arabia and Turkey -- debate launching a military intervention in Syria in response to a large-scale chemical attack last Wednesday in the suburbs of Damascus. The attack, which killed hundreds of people, has been attributed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, although the government has denied that allegation.
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Sean Sullivan, security advisor at F-Secure Labs, said the SEA's Tuesday hacks amounted to online "warning shots" directed at the United States. "Bottom line: if the United States launches a cruise missile at Syria ... there will definitely be a 'cyber' response," he tweeted Wednesday.
The SEA has previously hacked media outlets' websites and Twitter feeds for advancing what it sees as a negative view of the Syrian regime. Victims have included the Associated Press, CBS News, NPR, the BBC and satire site The Onion.
As of Wednesday morning, the SEA's own website remained unavailable, suggesting that it was the focus of a distributed denial of service attack.
The first signs of the SEA's Tuesday DNS hack campaign appeared when the Times website became unreachable. Shortly thereafter, Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said in a tweet that the website disruption "is most likely result of malicious external attack." The Times later released more details, although as of Wednesday morning its site -- and that article -- remained largely unreachable.
The Times website's DNS settings as well as some registration details were compromised by hackers Tuesday, with the "admin name" altered to read "SEA," address changed to "Syrian Arab Republic" and email changed to "[email protected]" Connecting directly to one of the Apache servers used by the Times returned a message that read "Hacked by SEA" before the connection was closed, the SANS Institute reported Tuesday.
The SEA Tuesday also claimed credit for the attacks via Twitter. "Hi @Twitter, look at your domain, its owned by #SEA :)" read one tweet, which linked to Whois details for the Twitter domain listing "SEA SEA" as the admin name.
After compromising the DNS settings of the various websites, the SEA rerouted some website visitors to hacker-controlled servers, and may have also intercepted email and traffic heading to and from the affected domains. "All three domains use Melbourne IT as their domain registrar. Once access to the registrar is obtained, the SEA can redirect all DNS, email and Web traffic going to these sites to a server of their choosing," HD Moore, chief research officer at Rapid7, told Threatpost.
AlienVault's Jaime Blasco posted a full list of sites that appeared to be redirecting to an SEA server, including not just the Times site but also Twitter and Huffington Post sites with a top-level U.K. domain name.
Throughout Tuesday, administrators for the Times played ping-pong with the SEA, as each side continued to update the DNS settings. CloudFlare CEO Matthew Prince said his company was helping the Times clean up the mess, and Tuesday turned to "two of the largest recursive DNS providers: OpenDNS and Google" to help prevent users from being redirected by malicious sites. "Technical teams from CloudFlare, OpenDNS and Google jumped on a conference call and discovered what appeared to be malware on the site to which the NYTimes.com site was redirected," Prince said in a blog post Tuesday. "OpenDNS and Google's DNS team worked to correct the hacked records for the customers of their recursive DNS services."
Numerous other sites -- including Google.com, Microsoft.com and Yahoo.com -- are also registered through Melbourne IT, raising the prospect that the SEA might still be able to trigger more widespread outages. "These other domains show no indication of being compromised, but if the attackers have found a weakness in the Melbourne IT system, these other domains may also be at risk," Moore told Mashable.
Melbourne IT said it traced the attack to a valid account at a U.S. reseller. "What we do know is that a valid username and password were used to access our systems," Melbourne IT's chief executive, Theo Hnarakis, told Australia's Financial Review Wednesday. "As far as the cause and how these perpetrators secured the name, we are not sure. We are still working with the reseller in the U.S. to work out exactly what's happening and whether it's a vulnerability on our side, on their side or with the customer."
According to a statement released by Melbourne IT, not all of the SEA's DNS hacking attempts were successful, thanks to some customers having used optional security controls. "For mission critical names we recommend that domain name owners take advantage of additional registry lock features available from domain name registries including .com -- some of the domain names targeted on the reseller account had these lock features active and were thus not affected," it said.
Any sites that may be targeted by the SEA would do well to heed that DNS security advice, especially since the group may soon ramp up its online attacks.
According to the United Nations, the two-year-old Syrian civil war has claimed more than 100,000 lives. Many Middle Eastern commentators see the conflict as a proxy war, with the winner set to gain an edge in regional power. Bloomberg reported in June that the U.S. and its allies declined to enter the Syrian conflict, believing that Assad's days were numbered. Instead, with the backing of Iran, his regime has posted notable gains.
But the prospect of imminent military intervention in Syria appears now all but certain after the the Arab League Tuesday condemned the Syrian government for last week's chemical attack, as well as two years of its "crimes of genocide." The 22-member organization urged the UN Security Council to act, and said that it "demands that all the perpetrators of this heinous crime be presented for international trials."