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Russian 'cybermilitia' knocks Kyrgyzstan offline

Same tactics used in '08 attack against Georgia, but hackers getting faster, says researcher

January 28, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A Russian "cybermilitia" has knocked the central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan off the Internet, a security researcher said today, demonstrating that the hackers are able to respond even faster than last year, when they waged a digital war against another former Soviet republic, Georgia.

Since Jan. 18, the two biggest Internet service providers in Kyrgyzstan have been under a "massive, sustained distributed denial-of-service attack," said Don Jackson, the director of threat intelligence at SecureWorks Inc.

The attacks, which are ongoing, have knocked most of the country offline and disrupted e-mail to and from a U.S. air base there, Jackson said. The public affairs officer at Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan was not immediately available to answer questions about whether the attacks have disrupted operations or other activities.

According to Jackson, the distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks -- essentially a flood of requests that overwhelm servers and effectively knock them off the Internet -- can be traced to the same groups of Russian and ethnic Russian hackers who assembled in militia-like fashion last August to launch similar attacks against Georgia.

"The traffic we've collected has all the hallmarks of the tools that were used in the Georgia attacks," said Jackson. "And they're from the same network [of IP addresses] that we associated with the cybermilitia last year." Researchers have also found two groups, led by "two specific players," in common with the 2008 attacks against Georgia, he added.

Speculation about why Kyrgyzstan's Internet infrastructure was attacked center around an investment deal that Russia is negotiating the country. Russia has indicated that it wants Kyrgyzstan to oust foreign air forces, including those of the U.S., before it will agree to loan the country $300 million and invest another $1.7 billion in its energy industry.

Opposition to the current administration in Kyrgyzstan has relied heavily on the Internet, while President Bakiyev's government has ignored the Web, said Jackson. "Any attack by Russians would do no collateral damage to their ally in the area, and would only impact the opposition," he explained.

Beyond the immediate effect on Kyrgyzstan, what's worrisome to Jackson is the speed with which this attack was mounted. "To put some perspective on this, it's been an escalating pattern from Estonia to Georgia to here," he said, referring to the 2007 and 2008 attacks against other former Soviet republics. "The attacks are more closely coinciding with events that are core to the Russian interest, with increasingly fast response and quick mobilization.

"When it once took days or weeks, now we're seeing it within hours," Jackson said.

In fact, the attacks on Kyrgyzstan were mobilized in much the same way that the so-called militia was formed last year to cripple Georgia. "It was the same kind of mobilization, where word is put out by a few and then other [hackers] respond," he said. One difference: The attacks against Kyrgyzstan lacked the kind of wide support that the Georgian DDoS attacks gained. At one point, Russian social network were involved in the latter, something not yet seen in the attacks against Kyrgyzstan.

"We haven't seen a broad base of support by Russian citizens," said Jackson. "It's more the core of the militia group."

Researchers have not found any direct connection between the attacks -- which originate on botnets and servers that send more mundane pharmaceutical spam or conduct phishing campaigns -- and the Russian government. But to Jackson, that hardly matters.

"People who once were in the KGB, or other parts of the government, and who now are in computer security, have in the past said, 'We will rely on this capability because there is no risk for us doing so,'" said Jackson. "Using cybermilitias shelters the Russian government from culpability."

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