Online Acts of War Tracked By New Breed Of Hackers

Dennis Faas's picture

In the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, a new breed of hacker-investigators monitoring how traffic is routed through countries where web sites are blocked and why it is happening are reportedly conducting digital espionage --- turning their attention to a new weapon of international warfare: cyber attacks.

"Hacktivists," led by Ronald J. Deibert, director of Citizen Lab, referred to as the "NSA of operations," set out to help residents in countries that censor online content, but have ended up tracking wars. Citizen Lab researchers created a software tool called Psiphon that helps users bypass Internet filters.

In the past year, researchers have gathered evidence that Internet assaults are playing a larger role in military strategy and political struggles. Citizen Lab researchers noticed sporadic attacks aimed at several Georgian web sites before Georgia and Russia entered into a ground war last month.

Those attacks threaten countries that increasingly link critical activities such as banking and transportation to the Internet. After the ground war between Georgia and Russia began, massive raids on Georgia's Internet infrastructure were deployed using similar techniques as those used by Russian criminal organizations. Attacks also seemed to come from individuals who found online instructions for launching their own assaults, shutting down most of Georgia's communication system.

Researchers are still trying to trace the origins of the attacks. The cyber attacks that disabled many Georgian and Russian web sites marked the first time such an assault coincided with physical fighting.

Citizen Lab opened seven years ago. Soon after it began, it helped begin the OpenNet Initiative --- a collaboration with Harvard's Law School, Cambridge and Oxford Universities that track patterns of Internet blocking in countries that use a lot of censorship, such as China. The Information Warfare Monitor was also launched to investigate how the Internet is used by state military and political operations. As a result, 100 researchers in more than 70 countries map web traffic and test access to thousands of sites.

Every day the Organization detects between 30 and 50 denial of service attacks around the world that have become more sophisticated. Cyber attacks used to target a computer's operating system, but attacks on web browsers, allowing attackers access to much more personal information are becoming more common.

It's unclear who is behind the attacks. In cases where locations of the botnet controllers can be traced, it could take a year to know whether an attacker is working on behalf of another organization or government. When the data trail crosses borders, there is little legal framework for the investigations.

Controlling information can be more important than disrupting the networks when it comes to military strategy. Lack of access to sources of information is a valuable tool for keeping citizens uninformed, undermining the will of the people being fought against. Digital espionage is the wave of the future.

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