The First Global Cyber-War

For those of you hiding under a rock or otherwise out of the loop the past 2 weeks a quick Google News search for Wikileaks should help fill you in.  The well-known whistle-blower site has hit global headlines the past few weeks as it releases some 250,000 classified US documents.  The site has come under heavy fire from US officials, some of which want to classify it as a terrorist organization.  Amazon, one of the hosts of Wikileaks pulled the plug on their hosting, EveryDNS stopped providing DNS service to Wikileaks, and Visa/Mastercard/PayPay have refused to process donations to the site.

In retaliation of all these actions, a group of supporters (that have no affiliation with Wikileaks whatsoever) known as ‘Anonymous’ launched a number of DDoS attacks against many of these sites.  Visa and Mastercard had their sites taken offline for a number of hours, PayPal’s blog and API site (a site used by maybe third-parties to process payments) were also hit and taken down/slowed down for a number of hours.  Other causalities of the attacks include Swedish prosecutors, PostFinance, and many others.

But this is not a one-sided battle.  The ‘Anonymous’ site has been hit several times on various fronts bring parts of its websites and chat rooms down.  Meanwhile Wikileaks was taken offline from a combination of DDoS attacks and Amazon/EveryDNS shutting down their accounts.

Also, Earlier in the year we saw attacks against the RIAA and MPAA by a group known as ‘4chan’ for attempting to take down a number of file sharing sites with DDoS attacks of their own.  This same group also targeted Tumblr for allegedly copying other people’s work and not giving them credit for it.

Data breaches of companies large and small are happening at an alarming rate too.  McDonald’s, University of Wisconsin, and Gawker are some of the latest victims.

Searches on Google News and may other sites for terms such as “DDoS Attack“, “4chan Attack“, and “data breach” yield thousands and thousands of results.  Reports of new attacks are coming daily and sometimes hourly at a rate that doesn’t appear to be slowing.  While most Internet users do not, and most likely will not, see the ramifications of these attacks, many individuals are starting to see the writing on the wall.

I myself believe we are on the verge of a global cyber-war.  We seem to be moving away from organized armies with rifles to vigilantes armed only with a laptop and an Internet connection.  Their targets can be a block down the road or 5000 miles away on the other side of the globe.  There is no age, race, religious, or any other barriers to doing such work.  Attacks from these ‘armies’ can be organized to strike anywhere in the world within hours.  Becoming part of the attack is so simple most children could do it.  Simply download a piece of software and give it the address of the control server.  That’s it, your PC is now a part of the attacks.

According to the download site, over 80 THOUSAND copies of the program have been downloaded in the last week.  What’s also clear from the graph is that downloads have trickled off since the 9th.  However, some statistics I managed to uncover indicate that there are almost 2 BILLION Internet users worldwide.  Assuming one quarter of those own a computer that’s roughly 500 MILLION Internet connected computers worldwide.  I’m sure this number is VERY low as a lot of these people have more than one computer but for the sake of argument let’s just go with it.  Let’s then say 1% of those Internet connected computers belong to a group of people who believe very strongly one way and want to do something to show it.  This brings us to about 1MILLION pissed off Internet users with computers out to prove a point.  Finally let’s take our original 80 THOUSAND downloads of that software and double it to 160 THOUSAND.  If 160 THOUSAND computers managed to take down the web sites of Visa and Mastercard (ranked 326 and 411 on the fortune 500 list of 2010) imagine what 1 MILLION could do?

But it doesn’t stop there; new technologies are being leveraged to make attacking even easier.  A small Javascript page makes attacking even easier.  All you have to do is visit a specific website and click a button.  No software to download, no computer knowledge required, and you could even participate from other Internet connected devices such as smart phones and tablet PCs.

We are starting to see what the creators of SETI@home discovered many years ago….one personal computer trying to analyze a decade’s worth of scientific data is all but worthless.  However, hundred of thousands, even millions, of computers all focused on the same task can really make a HUGE impact.  The shared CPU, RAM, disk space, and bandwidth of all these computers focused on one specific goal can rival, even exceed, the capabilities of the worlds great supercomputers.

Attacks such as those see the past two weeks or so show us that dedicated individuals, those that believe strongly in a cause, have the ability to take down not only your Facebook and Twitter pages but your bank, favorite on-line merchant, even government sites.  They can organize at a moments notice and vanish just as quickly.  And no, it’s not just the ‘bad guys’ that have this power, the US government, Chinese government, and I’m sure many other government organizations possess this ability.

If individuals can cause the amount of damage we have see these past two weeks imagine what would happen if two governments started attacking each-other through DDoS attacks?  Imagine the Axis and Allies attacking not with heavy bombers and armored tanks but with nothing except small electric pulses sent zooming around the globe at the speed of light?  Your snipers are highly experienced hackers, your Generals become CIO’sFirewalls and IPS devices become your shields and walls.  Your heavy artillery is worms and Trojans.  Wars could be decided in minutes…in seconds.

We sit at a crossroad and are watching history unfold before our very eyes.  The true potential, the true power, of millions of Internet connected devices is just starting to come into light.  Nobody knows what the future holds, and I would never claim such things.  The Internet is, and has always been, about the open flow of information.  What started as a small lab experiment has turned into a tool that most of us cannot do without in our day-to-day lives.  As cars, home appliances, and many other devices connect to the Internet the number of possible ‘attack devices’ is only going to grow.  I, for one, look to the future with much anticipation and wonder, contemplating what happens next….

Farther reading:
http://pandalabs.pandasecurity.com/tis-the-season-of-ddos-wikileaks-editio/
http://www.zdnet.com/blog/perlow/the-global-cyber-war-hacks-and-attacks-scorecard/15192
http://news.cnet.com/8301-13578_3-20024578-38.html
http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2010/dec/10/wikileaks-cables-anonymous-online-war
http://www.astaro.com/en-us/blog/from-bedroom-to-underground

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