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6/17/2009
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Hactivist DDoS Attacks In Iran Trigger Worries Of Wider Internet Crackdown

Experts warn that protest distributed denial-of-service attacks could backfire

Security experts are warning U.S. citizens and others not to join Iranian opposition hacktivists for fear that continued distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks against Iranian government and other Websites will backfire and prompt Iranian officials to cut off the country's outside Internet access altogether.

Reports that the Iranian government had begun throttling back Internet bandwidth and limiting access to Websites have emerged during the past few days in the wake of protests from Iranian citizens about the recent election of President Ahmadinejad, who was declared the winner over Mir Hossein Mousavi in Iran's national presidential run. Protesters have been DDoSing government-sponsored sites, mainly getting out the word through Twitter and other social networking sites via proxy servers.

"Calling for attacks for the sake of getting their messages across is an action far from actually causing any positive development in the situation. The only thing these hacktivists are succeeding in is making things worse. So please do not participate in any of these activities," blogged J.M. Hipolito of Trend Micro yesterday.

Hacktivists have used everything from do-it-yourself DDoS toolkits to iFrame-loading scripts and other tools in their attacks, according to researcher Dancho Danchev in his blog.

Although several pro-Ahmadinejad Websites in Iran have returned access errors and appear to be under attack -- including Ahmadinejad's blog, the Presidency of the Islamic Republic, several government ministries, and Iranian news agencies, according to Danchev's research -- it's impossible to accurately assess the damage incurred by the DDoS attacks.

Amichai Shulman, CTO of Imperva, says there's no way to know whether some of the error messages from pro-Ahmadinejad Websites are really under attack, or if the error messages are due to Iran's blocking its "e-borders" from outsiders. "Quite frankly, we have to be cautious on [determining] how successful these hactivist attacks are, anyway. The Iranian government has very tight control over their major Internet connection links to the rest of the world," Shulman says. "Basically, what hacktivists [may be] seeing is traffic from the outside being blocked at Iran's e-border before even hitting targeted government servers," not necessarily a successful Website takedown via DDoS, he says.

Shulman says he doubts the Iranian government would institute a full Internet blackout to stop any protests or DDoSing. "It's better for them to let traffic flow undisturbed, and just be monitored by Iranian intelligence," he says. "They will probably let out what they want us to see, and let in only what they want people inside Iran to see."

Craig Labovitz, chief scientist for Arbor Networks, showed in his blog today how much Iran's Internet traffic has fluctuated since the election, based on traffic patterns of the state-owned Data Communication Company of Iran (DCI), which serves as a gateway for all Internet traffic in the country.

"I can only speculate. But DCI's Internet changes suggest piecemeal migration of traffic flows," Labovitz blogged. "...the government cannot turn off the Internet without impacting business and perhaps generating further social unrest. In all, this represents a delicate balance for the Iranian government and a test case for the Internet to impact democratic change."

Only an estimated one-fourth of Iranian citizens have access to the Internet, and those who do typically make use of proxies to access Twitter, other social networking sites, and banned Websites. Much of this cyber-rioting was fueled via Twitter tweets; Twitter has become a major communications platform for the protest movement, with the company delaying planned maintenance of its servers on Monday to allow those Iranians with Twitter access to remain online. Meanwhile, supporters of the protest movement outside of Iran have sent rallying tweets, such as, "Help hide Iranian protesters on Twitter? Set your time/location to Tehran +3:30 GMT."

But the trouble with Twitter, of course, is that you often can't distinguish between a legitimate and a phony tweet. "My guess is both sides are using it," Imperva's Shulman says.

And in the latest development, Iran's Revolutionary Guard has now ordered bloggers and Websites in the country to take down any content online that "creates tension" or else face legal action, according to an Associated Press report today.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message. Kelly Jackson Higgins is Executive Editor at DarkReading.com. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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