IMPORTANT UPDATE – SEE BOTTOM OF POST
Anyone still using the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword” clearly can’t use a mouse. This week, a battle took place in cyberspace of epic proportion – setting a precedent more worrying than a belligerent North Korea. But is it still a war if nobody dies? If the combat is invisible and there are no soldiers?
It all started with a squabble between two companies. On one hand is Spamhaus – an anti-spam company which administers a blacklist of web hosts used by email providers to filter unwanted and malicious email messages. On the other hand is Cyberbunker – the home of everything except child porn and terrorism, if you believe their website. Spamhaus, identifying Cyberbunker as the source of a lot of spam (originating from websites it hosts), blacklisted it.
Well that pissed them right off. The reaction? A wave of digital attacks unprecedented in scale – so big that they effectively shut down or slowed down bits of the internet. Globally. The attacks were so vast in scale that the data streams were bigger than the data usage of entire countries.
But this is the bit to pay attention to:
The hackers used other people’s computers to repeatedly and simultaneously request access to websites, overloading them and causing them to crash (this is called distributed denial of service, or DDoS). With whose computers, I hear you ask?
Clicking the wrong link, downloading the wrong file or visiting the wrong website can turn your computer into a hacker’s slave. You won’t know when you’re infected and you won’t know that you’re being used.
Now, I’m outraged that this sort of attack might mean that I can’t watch the latest episode of Dancing on Ice on ITV Player. But the big problem is that the way the internet is built makes it vulnerable to DDoS attacks like this. The battle is between Spamhaus and Cyberbunker (and third-parties employed to attack and defend), but it grew in less than a week to incorporate the central internet exchanges in London, Frankfurt, Hong Kong and Amsterdam. And there’s not very much anyone can do to stop them.
In a great show of irony, Cyberbunker’s website was down today, apparently suffering a taste of its own medicine.
Journalist Misha Glenny has investigated the murky world of hacking and hackers. He has some surprising statistics and fascinating stories about unlikely criminals and his solution t the problem….? Hire the hackers.
To an extent, the American government has followed his recommendations, but unfortunately the common consensus is that hacking just can’t be stopped. The internet is a global phenomenon – it exists everywhere and as such global cooperation is needed to combat it.
Bottom line: this is only the beginning.
A moment of integrity: the claim that the internet was slowed down by a war between Spamhaus and Cyberbunker does not seem to be true, despite being reported widely in mainstream media (which is where I picked up the story) such as the New York Times, BBC, Bloomberg, Associated Press, and others.
It seems that the story originated from CloudFlare, a company used by Spamhaus to defend against Cyberbunker’s attack. CloudFlare appears to have exaggerated the effect of the attack, which is not surprising as it’s in their business interest to do so.
Journalists of international repute, perhaps due to facing a technical onslaught that was beyond their comprehension, just went with the source and did not check the information. This post does a very good job of explaining what journalists should have done. After all, a journalist is an expert in nothing except writing. As one of them I should also have made efforts to verify the story, even if it was being published everywhere else. Sorry.
Interestingly, however, the attacks were still of a massive scale – unprecedented actually – and as such have drawn attention to infrastructure vulnerabilities. This blog explains why they are still important.