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Russian Hackers Besiege Social Sites to Silence Pro-Georgia Blogger

By Renay San Miguel
Aug 7, 2009 11:55 AM PT

If you were unable to log on to Twitter or Facebook Thursday morning, you can consider yourself collateral damage in the ongoing conflict between Russia and Georgia.

Russian Hackers Besiege Social Sites to Silence Pro-Georgia Blogger

Facebook has confirmed that a pro-Georgia blogger was the target of a widespread distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack that hit the top social networks and other Web sites. Facebook was able to fend off the attack, but Twitter was down for most of Thursday morning, and a company blog post indicates the popular microblogging service was still dealing with DDoS' after-effects Friday.

Media reports point to a blogger, known as "Cyxymu," who has named himself after a city in Georgia. Friday marks the first anniversary of the war between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia, and the attacks may have been timed to silence Cyxymu's use of his social media accounts to commemorate the date.

"Yesterday's attack appears to be directed at an individual who has a presence on a number of sites, rather than the sites themselves," Facebook spokesperson Kathleen Loughlin told TechNewsWorld. "Specifically, the person is an activist blogger, and a botnet was directed to request his pages at such a rate that it impacted service for other users. We've isolated the issue, and almost all of our users are able to enjoy the normal Facebook experience."

A New Cyberwar Front

Thursday's attacks indicate that hackers working for foreign intelligence services may now consider it vital to take down social networks as part of their Web attack strategies, said Fred Burton, vice president of counterterrorism and corporate security for global intelligence firm Stratfor.

"Look at what happened inside Iran during the elections and the blowback from the community blogging there," Burton told TechNewsWorld. "You're sitting around the table and your military command and intelligence services are saying, 'Next time, let's think about eliminating the ability of bloggers to dispatch messages.' This is just another tactic in the intelligence community. It's the modern-day version of blowing up the bridge over the river Kwai."

There are between six and a dozen foreign intelligence agencies who have the technological capabilities to pull off an event like Thursday's DDOS attack, Burton said, including the Russian FSB, the new version of the Cold War-era KGB. "Due to the timing and the nature of the victim, this certainly smells of Russian FSB active measures -- and, quite simply, it's because they can. It's not surprising to me at all."

Defense Options for US-Based Social Networks

A post on the Twitter Status Web site mid-morning Friday indicated the social network was still parrying attacks. "Due to defensive measures we've taken against the ongoing denial-of-service attack, some Twitter clients are unable to communicate with our API (application programming interface) and many users are unable to tweet via SMS (short message service)," the post said. "We are working as quickly as possible to restore our full service."

Twitter's rapid user growth over the past year may have outpaced its ability to protect its infrastructure from DDoS attacks. Facebook and Google are larger, fully developed companies and have more backup ability when it comes to server issues. Still, Burton said Thursday's attacks show just how much botnet power Russia and other countries may have at their disposal.

"To be blunt, our options are very limited," he explained. 'When a multinational corporation or publicly held company is going against the resources of a hostile foreign intelligence agency, they're greatly undermanned from a technology perspective. They simply don't have the bandwidth to do battle with a foreign intelligence service.

"It's a cat-and-mouse game," he said. "Even the folks sitting around at the Pentagon have to game-board this out and say, 'How can we prevent this from happening in the future?'"

From the Russian perspective, Thursday's attack gives them an idea of what their hackers can accomplish -- and get away with.

"There are a lot of lessons learned on both sides of the fence from this," Burton said.


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