Cyber attacks from the Kremlin

Cyber attacks engulf Kremlin’s critics on left and right ahead of elections

A political battle is raging in Russian cyberspace.

Opposition parties and independent media say murky forces have committed
vast resources to hacking and crippling their websites in attacks
similar to those that hit tech-savvy Estonia as the Baltic nation
sparred with Russia over a Soviet war memorial.

While they offer no proof, the groups all point the finger at the
Kremlin, calling the electronic siege an attempt to stifle Russia’s last
source of free, unfiltered information.

The victims, who range from liberal democrats to ultranationalists,
allege their hacker adversaries hope to harass the opposition with the
approach of parliamentary elections in December and presidential
elections in next March.

Some independent experts agree.

“A huge information war awaits Russia before the elections,” said Oleg
Panfilov of the centre for Journalism in Extreme Situations.

The groups claim the attackers use vast, online networks of computers
infected with malicious software _ whose owners probably aren’t aware
they are involved _ to paralyze or erase targeted websites.

Stanislav Belkovsky, a political analyst believed to have close ties to
Kremlin insiders, said a senior associate of President Vladimir Putin is
leading the cyber assault. The government denies it and insists it has
nothing to do with the onslaught. The Kremlin said hackers could easily
forge Internet Protocol addresses registered to government offices.

Belkovsky, founder of the Moscow-based National Strategy Institute, said
the Kremlin is upset that it has been unable to control the political
content of online media. “The Kremlin can’t just tell their editors to
remove an unwanted publication,” he said.

The attacks are similar to assaults _ sometimes a million
computers-strong _ unleashed in April and early May against websites in
Estonia. Officials there say waves of attacks crashed dozens of
government, corporate and media websites in one of Europe’s most wired
societies.

The cyber warfare included computer-generated spam and so-called
Distributed Denial-of-Service, or DDoS, attacks. It erupted during
violent protests by ethnic Russians against the decision to move a
Soviet-era Red Army monument out of downtown Tallinn, the Estonian capital.

The DDoS attacks involve a flood of computers all trying to connect to a
single site at the same time, overwhelming the computer server that
handles the traffic. Estonian authorities claimed they traced the
attacks to Kremlin IP addresses.

Outside experts say blocking this type of Web assault is difficult or
impossible because the host server has no way of distinguishing between
legitimate and bogus requests for access.

“It doesn’t matter if the website itself has a lot of protection,” said
Hari Balakrishnan, a computer science professor at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology. “People are not breaking into it. People are
just making requests of it.”

Government security services have long been suspected of engaging in
hacking. In 1999, an unidentified hacker in Moscow penetrated U.S.
Defense Department computers for more than a year, copying classified
naval codes and data on missile guidance systems. The Kremlin denied
involvement.

The Chinese government is suspected of using the Web to break into
computers at the Defense Department and other U.S. agencies between 2003
and 2005, in what was dubbed Operation Titan Rain. Since 2001, Chinese
“hacktivists” have organized attacks on and defaced U.S. websites to
oppose what they call the imperialism of the United States and Japan.

China has set up an extensive surveillance system to prevent its
citizens from accessing online materials considered obscene or
politically subversive. Russia does not filter or block websites, and
the Internet plays a critical role as the only form of mass media over
which the government has no control.

The Kremlin, either directly or indirectly, owns the three major
national television networks, major radio networks, wire services and
print publications. Meanwhile the remaining independent media, face
growing pressure to engage in self-censorship.

In March, Putin created an agency that will license broadcast, print and
online media. The following month, the government banned what it
considered extremist statements _ such as those by pro-separatist
Chechen websites or supporters of legalizing marijuana _ and broadened
the definition of extremism.

The legislation covers slander or libel of a government official, but
it’s up to a court decide whether it counts as extremism.

The new law resulted in a string of fines, warnings and trials for
Russia’s online journalists, bloggers and participants in politicized
Web forums. Critics fear the Kremlin could use these and other measures
to resurrect Soviet-style media monitoring and censorship.

So far, however, the Web has operated largely outside government control
and has grown into the opposition’s main tool for recruiting and organizing.

Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion turned opposition leader, was
only half-joking when he told The Associated Press in May: “YouTube for
the Russian opposition is the only way to communicate.

But reliance on the Web also makes the opposition vulnerable to hackers.

The outlawed National Bolshevik party says its websites were repeatedly
hacked between February and April, as the nationalist group used the
Internet to marshal “Dissenters’ Marches” in Moscow, St. Petersburg and
elsewhere.

The attacks were sophisticated as well as massive, said Alexei Sochnev,
who is in charge of the National Bolsheviks’ online network.

“They killed the entire U.S. server that hosted us,” he said.

When the attacks ended, traffic fell by about two-thirds, from 6,000 to
just 2,000 visits a day. Group leaders say the crash cut attendance at
opposition rallies.

Mainstream media have also come under cyber-assault, especially when
they carry information likely to draw the attention of the government.

Kommersant’s Web editor, Pavel Chernikov, said the major daily
newspaper’s site was attacked in early May. He called it retaliation for
publishing a transcript of the interrogation of Boris Berezovsky _ a
self-exiled oligarch who lives in London _ by Russian investigators.

While British prosecutors have identified a former KGB agent living in
Moscow as the prime suspect in the murder of Russian spy Alexander
Litvinenko, Russian authorities have focused on Berezovsky, Putin’s
political foe.

On the same morning, the website of Ekho Moskvy, a liberal Moscow radio
station where criticism of Kremlin policies can often be heard, was
brought down by a DDoS attack.

Similar tactics have frequently been used by Western hackers _ in 2000,
the websites of CNN, Yahoo! and eBay were paralyzed by online
blackmailers. Massive attacks in 2002 and February 2007 attempted to
disable the Internet itself.

The United States _ especially the government sector _ was the target of
more than a half of DDoS attacks worldwide, according to Symantec. The
FBI recently arrested several DDoS hackers as part of “Operation Bot
Roast” sting.

Nothing of the kind is happening in Russia.

Panfilov of the centre for Journalism in Extreme Situations said Russian
opposition websites will find themselves under increasing pressure as
election season heats up.

“There will be purges of online publications, shutdowns or takeovers of
last independent media outlets and strong pressure on Web users,” he said.

Associated Press correspondent Michael Baumann contributed to this report.

AP
June 29, 2007.

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