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Virtual Riots No Laughing Matter

Online attacks become new method of protest, disinformation

4:55 PM -- When we think about online attacks, we usually think of a single individual, or perhaps a few people working together. But now it seems we may need to consider another type of attacker: the angry mob.

In less than a week now, we've seen two examples of semi-organized attacks on a single Website by multiple users. Although these exploits had very different methods and motivations, both resulted in the incapacitation of the Websites they targeted.

The first instance occurred this past weekend in Estonia, where Russian nationalists were protesting the removal of a large statue of a Red Army soldier in a downtown square in Talinn. The protests turned to riots, resulting in one death and more than 1,100 arrests. (See DOS Gets Political in Estonia.)

During the riots, Russian nationalists launched denial-of-service attacks against most of the Estonian government's primary Websites, rendering them useless for nearly a week. While some observers blamed Russian hackers, others (including a Dark Reading reader) said the exploits were perpetrated directly by the Russian government. In either case, Websites that were useful to Estonian citizens were brought down for political purposes.

Just a few days later, online protesters rebelled against Digg's decision to obey DRM laws and take down postings related to the cracking of HD DVD and Blu-Ray encryption codes. (See DRM Hack Flap Sparks Digg 'Riot'.)

Digg said it had no choice but to pull down the postings of the DVD encryption key, because the law states that it can't publish information that violates intellectual property rights. But Digg users claimed Digg's actions violated their freedom of speech -- so they papered the site with hundreds of resubmissions of the decryption code, essentially incapacitating the site.

In both the Estonian riots and Digg's "virtual riot," useful, high-profile sites were rendered useless to prove a political point. In both cases, angry mobs denied Web services to bystanding users because they were ticked off about a narrow political issue. And in both cases, they achieved their goal to make themselves heard.

This sort of attack works, and you know what that means for a hack: it will be tried again by others on other sites, for different reasons. Does your company have political enemies? Does it come under fire from environmentalists, animal rights activists, or anti-business types? If so, you may one day have to face a new type of attack, just as Digg and the Estonian government did earlier this week.

It's a shame that protesters find it necessary to incapacitate a useful Website in order to make a statement. To me, it seems a little like those protesters who block a major highway to get their message heard -- they may succeed, but a lot of innocent bystanders have to suffer as a result.

From a security perspective, however, it doesn't really matter what we think of this new group of attackers. They're here, and they're not going away. Now we'll have to come up with new ways to defend against such targeted DOS attacks, and keep Websites available in the dire hours when they're needed most.

Let's call it "virtual riot control."

— Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading


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