During the South Ossetia crisis, many people looked at the most popular Georgian pages to gather information about the situation. Big surprise, sites like the popular forum.ge or liberty.ge were not working and official sites were blocked or hacked.
Press quickly jumped into conclusions saying that Russia was attacking Georgia both on the ground and on-line and that was the first cyberwar with a government attacking other also on the Internet, probably by paid “hackers” working for them, when they found out that the President site president.gov.ge and other official sites were blocked. But as expert Gadi Evron said a couple of days after it started on his article Internet attacks against Georgian Websites:
1. There are botnet attacks against .ge websites.
2. These attacks affect the .ge Internet infrastructure, but it's reachable.
3. It doesn't seem Internet infrastructure is directly attacked.
4. Every other political tension in the past 10 years, from a comic of the Prophet Muhammad to the war in Iraq, were followed by online supporters attacking targets which seem affiliated with the opposing side, and vise-versa.
A new type of narrative is taking hold among the coverage of the military conflict between Russia and Georgia. A number of sites are writing about the “cyberwarfare” being waged by pro-Russian forces against the Georgian government. It seems that, like Estonia a year ago, entities evoking the ire of Russia must be forced to combat widespread botnet-based DDoS attacks. I think there is little doubt that such occurrences will be increasingly part of real-world conflicts, but people are rushing into framing this as warfare, which will only lead to military-based reactions – something I fear.
A new, anonymous, ubiquitous enemy to fight was the picture by mainstream media. Warfare and hack attacks are frequently popular items, mostly because it’s a statement that almost always guarantees a reaction. And if it is combines with an armed conflict with Russia it will get additional attention. But it is important to take a second look on it.
“An army of ones and zeroes” was the title of an article by Eugeny Morozov, where he provides details on the attacks and all the information available to any user on the web interested in download the software and attack georgian sites. He tested it by himself and shared the experience:
Not knowing exactly how to sign up for a cyberwar, I started with an extensive survey of the Russian blogosphere. My first anonymous mentor, as I learned from this blog post, became frustrated with the complexity of other cyberwarfare techniques used in this campaign and developed a simpler and lighter “for dummies” alternative. All I needed to do was to save a copy of a certain Web page to my hard drive and then open it in my browser. I was warned that the page wouldn't work with Internet Explorer but did well with Firefox and Opera. (Get with the program, Microsoft!) Once accessed, the page would load thumbnailed versions of a dozen key Georgian Web sites in a single window. All I had to do was set the page to automatically update every three to five seconds. Voilà: My browser was now sending thousands of queries to the most important Georgian sites, helping to overload them, and it had taken me only two to three minutes to set up.
Ethan Zuckrman provides a complete analysis of what he called “Misunderstanding Cyberwar“:
The rhetoric of “cyberwarfare” has a reassuring implication: we understand how to fight wars, so surely we can win a cyberwar. Unfortunately, the truth is more complicated. There’s no magic “cyberspace command” solution the USAF can unleash to defeat a botnet. The administrators trying to bring Georgian webservers back online are doing precisely what any sysadmin does confronted with a DDoS – they are blocking traffic from the IP addresses that are launching the attacks, and sharing these blocklists with administrators confronting the same problems. If they can block addresses more quickly than the attackers can recruit more participants, they’ll win. This strategy is known by the complex technical term “Whack-a-Mole”, and it’s roughly as frustrating as the fairground game of the same name.
Sometimes hacker world is unfamiliar for many of Internet users, even more complex for those that never use the internet (most of the World population). In Georgia, for example, only 7% of the population have access. But certainly almost all the population have access to t.v. and radio news that were repeating the same message: Internet in Georgia under attack, linked to the intervention.
Digital Natives Blog provides an analysis on the attacks on “Cyberwar and Non State Actors” and also discussed the importance of “digital citizenship”:
Digital citizenship is a tricky business – online, it’s not entirely clear where one’s loyalties do or should lie. What of international human rights activists whose own governments spy on them? Or software entrepreneurs whose products are adopted by repressive governments? It may simply be the case that with the near-zero cost of moving ideas around the world, we must get used to our ideas being carried forward and adopted by those with whom we disagree or even find abhorrent. What of responsibility, then? I think our responsibilities online ultimately are no more or less than our responsibilities offline – be conscious of our actions and how they effect others, and always seek to treat others justly.
After the first headlines some experts said that it might be a grassroots global reaction, a protest, an electronic riot. But the first headlines raised concerns on the security divisions around the world, Cyberwar is a strong word with heavy political consequences all around that can shape the future of security measures and intervention of the Internet.
Now the debate among experts monitoring the situation such as Info War Monitor is:
were the attacks in cyberspace part of deliberately planned campaign, or did they happen spontaneously, inspired by events?
For hacktivists code is a form of speech, and their actions from grassroots are an expression of civil disobedience, an effective way to be heard, so their message will not be lost, their way to engage in political participation, to make political statements, something not analyzed in the first headlines by the press. And their hacks are political expressions, not hurting human beings but systems. Of concern of activist and hacktivists has to be the impact of information, misinformation and lack of information during humanitarian crisis.
People might react in different ways to a headline, and public opinion (lacking technology knowledge) can support in the future strong measures to control the Internet if media is not careful enough and pictures attacks as serious threats to global security. It might have an ugly impact to consider hacker actions an “act of aggression”, a “crime against peace”.
And at the end of the day, as as “The Wars virtual dimension” said:
while the political and informational wars are taking place, over there – in South Ossetia, in Georgia – people are dying and suffering. […].
Perhaps it is time to start thinking about internet tools to help those in the middle, as good net citizens and show media and public opinion the huge potential of Internet to do good.