New York Times site outage caused by attack on domain registrar, company says

Attack may have compromised several other domains as well, including Twitter, security researchers say

The New York Times blamed a prolonged website outage on Tuesday on a hacking attack at the company's Australia-based domain name registrar, Melbourne IT.

A story published by The Times on Tuesday afternoon quoted the company's CIO, Marc Frons, as saying the disruption was the result of an external attack on the registrar by the Syrian Electronic Army, or someone trying "very hard" to impersonate the hacking group.

The paper's main site was intermittently unavailable for several hours Tuesday afternoon and remained that way as of 7.00 p.m. ET.

In an initial Twitter post, The Times blamed the outage on "technical problems." But later, the newspaper's director of corporate communication indicated that the site might have been knocked offline by a hacking attack. The company said the attack required employees of The Times to stop sending sensitive emails for a period of time on Tuesday.

The same attack on Melbourne IT that caused problems for The Times may have compromised several other domains as well, including Twitter, security researchers said on Tuesday. The WHOIS records for Twitter on Tuesday afternoon showed that the Syrian Electronic Army compromised two of Twitter's domain names, they said.

In an alert, H.D. Moore, chief research officer at security vendor Rapid7, noted that Melbourne IT appears to be the registrar for several other larger companies, including Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, Ikea and AOL. "These other domains show no indication of being compromised, but if the attackers have found a weakness in the Melbourne IT system, these other domains may also be at risk," Moore wrote.

Chester Wisniewski, a senior security advisor at Sophos, said that the attackers likely gained access to the Australian registrar's systems and changed the domain name records of The Times so as to redirect traffic bound for the site to a server belonging to the Syrian Electronic Army.

A review of the DNS records for The Times when the site was unavailable on Tuesday afternoon shows the company's DNS records pointing to systems that appeared to be based in Moscow and in Syria, Wisniewski said.

"If we look at the history of these guys over the last six months they probably phished the name provider," he said.

Instead of directly attacking the intended target, the Syrian Electronic Army has shown a tendency to go after partners and service providers who might be less well protected, Wisniewski said.

He pointed to a recent website disruption at the Washington Post that appears to have resulted from an attack by the hacking group on content service provider Outbrain. In that incident, the hackers at the Syrian Electronic Army also appeared to try and use their access at Outbrain to compromise CNN, he noted.

"There is no evidence of a DDoS attack related to the ongoing issues with DNS resolution for The New York Times website, nor is there any evidence that DNS cache-poisoning was involved," said Dan Holden, director of security research at Arbor Networks. "[The] incident appears to be the result of the latest in an apparently ongoing series of high-profile DNS registrar compromises and other operational issues."

Melbourne IT could not be reached immediately for comment.

Tuesday's outage marks the second time this month that the paper's main website been taken offline. On August 14, the site was knocked out for more than two hours and then struggled with sluggish performance for two more hours as the result of what the paper described as a technical glitch.

That outage, which also took down The Times' mobile application, occurred seconds after a scheduled site maintenance update, the company said at that time. The incident caused some speculation about whether the site had been hacked or had really gone down because of a technical issue as the paper claimed.

In January, The Times disclosed that attackers belonging to a Chinese hacking group had gained access to its networks and systems and remained undetected for four months. The intrusion happened in September 2012, when the paper was doing a story on China's Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, The Times noted.

Security experts suggested hackers might have gained an initial foothold on the company's website via a targeted, specially crafted phishing email.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at  @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

See more by Jaikumar Vijayan on Computerworld.com.

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