13 December 2011

Vladimir Putin's Cyber Warriors

Early on Tuesday morning, my Web site, Agentura.ru, which covers the activities of Russia's secret services, was shut down by a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack. My technical staff and I were forced to reset the site's server every 15 minutes, but it didn't help: the site was down for the most of the day.

This came later than I expected: many independent Russian news and analysis Web sites faced attacks and disruptions on Sunday, the day of Russia's parliamentary elections, in which the party favored by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, United Russia, suffered an embarrassing setback at the polls, even after engaging in widespread voting fraud.

In total, 14 sites were victims of DDoS attacks, including those of the radio station Ekho Moskvy, the newspaper Kommersant, and Golos, the country's only independent election watchdog. Those Web sites were attacked as early as 6:40 on Sunday morning, according to Alexei Venediktov, Ekho Moskvy's editor-in-chief, and remained offline for the entire day. According to information-security experts at Yandex, Russia's largest search portal, more than 200,000 computers were turned into "slaves" for the DDoS attack, in which a targeted site receives so many requests for access that it simply shuts down. It is a simple, cheap, and effective way to disrupt a Web site, at least temporarily.

The attacked sites responded by migrating elsewhere. For example, the news portal Slon.ru and the Web site of the newspaper Bolshoi Gorod moved their content to the Web site of the television channel Dozhd. For their part, Ekho Moskvy and Golos used blogs on LiveJournal.com; when LiveJournal later came under attack, Golos switched to Google Docs to publish its data on electoral violations.

Of course, DDoS attacks against Russian Web sites deemed to be hostile to the Kremlin are nothing new. This tactic first appeared in January 2002, when Russian hackers brought down for a day Kavkaz.org, the Web site of Chechen separatist fighters. It turned out that the perpetrators were students in Tomsk, a city in central Russia; the local department of the Federal Security Service was fully aware of the attack, putting out a press release that defended the actions of the students as a legitimate "expression of their position as citizens, one worthy of respect." Since then, what the Russian press calls "hacker patriots" have launched a series of DDoS attacks aimed at the Web sites of independent media sources in Russia, as well as at government agencies in Estonia, Georgia, and Lithuania.

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