Cyber Warfare Precedes Georgian-Russian Hostilities

While the world and many of its leaders were focused on the spectacular opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, a full scale war broke out between Russia and Georgia over the disputed territory of South Ossetia, including cyber attacks on official Georgian Web sites. According to a number of sources, Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks have wreaked havoc on and shut down (at least temporarily) official Georgian Web sites, including those for the President’s Office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense. Blogger Jart Armin says that the attacks are the work of the Russian Business Network, a hacker group allegedly linked to the Russian mafia. He also has technical details on the attack.

This online attack follows ones earlier this year against Estonia, after the removal of a monument to Soviet soldiers in Tallinn, and against Lithuanian sites which were painted with anti-Lithuanian slurs and Soviet symbols following a Lithuanian government decision to ban such symbols in the country. The cyber attacks on Georgia are made possible by malicious software loaded on unsuspecting ‘zombie’ computers around the world that are ‘turned on’ by hackers who hold them in waiting for use in such attacks, as Jonathan Zittrain warned of in his book, and on the Colbert Report.

For those looking for some background, James Traub wrote an excellent piece on the history and politics behind the dispute, including the events that led to military engagement. As others have noted (posthumously), the likelihood that the dispute would turn into military conflict appears to have always been more a question of when, than if. It is disappointing, but not hard to believe given the continual pullback of overseas correspondents by news services, and with the world’s attention focused on the Olympics, that very few independent observers have been able to verify claims made by either side, such as claims that thousands of civilians had already been killed by early in the weekend. As with other breaking news stories, Global Voices has helped to fill the information vacuum by tracking what local bloggers are saying about the quickly escalating events, as well as analysis.

UPDATE: Berkman friends Evgeny Morozov (Russia Internet guru) and Ron Deibert (OpenNet Initiative partner) discuss the cyber war in Thursday’s Washington Post. Ron notes quite appropriately the lack of international law around cyber attacks when he asks, “International laws are very poorly developed, so it really crosses a line into murky territory…Is an information blockade an act of war?” And for a good, non-technical explanation of botnets and how this attack was discovered, fought and investigated, see Jose Nazario’s interview on the News Hour. Nazario argues that those behind the cyber attack on Georgia are likely non-state actors since the history of these botnets has been for use against gambling and other non-political sites, but that it may take years before we know, if ever.

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4 Responses to “Cyber Warfare Precedes Georgian-Russian Hostilities”

  1. » Tracking Cyber Warriors I&D Blog Says:

    […] OpenNet Initiative in tracking the recent cyber war between Russia and Georgia. As we highlighted here earlier, DDoS attacks shut down or limited access to a number of Georgian government sites. In […]

  2. » Burmese Web Sites Attacked on Eve of Saffron Revolution I&D Blog Says:

    […] as we’ve seen from similar attacks last month on official Georgian Web sites, we may never be able to prove who was behind the […]

  3. Political Discourse in the Digital Age: Part II | aha-moments Says:

    […] We’ve also seen social media be used for violent (and likely criminal) activity both within Iran and outside. For example, there’s a thread on Twitter which calls for people to participate in denial-of-service attacks on Iranian government websites. In many ways, DOS attacks stands somewhere between hooliganism and an act of war. […]

  4. Internet & Democracy Blog » Twitter Attack May Be Part of Russia-Georgia Dispute Says:

    […] in, including attacks against Estonian and Ukrainian sites, and last year DDOS attacks actually preceded the Russian action against Georgia. In the Estonia case, a leader of the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi claimed credit […]