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Russia's cyber blockade of Georgia worked. Could it happen here?

Lesson learned: DDoS attacks, as well as the response to them, can cripple a country

April 27, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The Russian and Georgia war last August began in cyberspace with sporadic denial-of-service attacks, targeted primarily at news and government Web sites weeks before the shooting started. And at first, says Eka Tkeshelashvili, secretary of the National Security Council of Georgia, the government wasn't certain what to make of it.

Georgian officials believed it was an effort by Russia to apply psychological pressure on the country and cause some disruption, "but not to the extent that the whole banking system would have been shut off, crippling the economy," says Tkeshelashvili.

But that's exactly what happened. As armed hostilities began, the distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks increased in severity, making news and government Web sites impossible to reach. Banks shut down servers to protect themselves from the theft of data, but a flood of false information and erroneous IP packets presumably originated in Russia triggered an automated response from international banks to sever connections to the country.

By itself, the DDoS attack was shutting down Georgia's ability to reach the world, but the problem was compounded by the reaction to the attack from financial institutions. Combined, these actions had one result: The Russians had succeeded in isolating Georgia.

Cyber blockade

In taking Georgia offline, the Russians had the Internet, in a sense, to themselves. In the initial days of the fighting, the Russian news media could present its version of the war while the Georgians dealt with what amounted to a cyber blockade.

"There is no way that Georgia could do anything at all to stop or reverse the military defeat that was staring it in the face," says Patrick Worms, a communications adviser to the Georgian government at the time of the war. "The only thing it could do was generate global condemnation of this Russian move and global sympathy for its plight, he says. For that, it needed Internet access.

But this attack was intended "to make sure that the outside world couldn't see into Georgia and make sure Georgia couldn't get in touch with the outside world," says Tom Merilo, a retired information systems auditor from Canada's largest telecom, Bell, who was in Georgia after the war to help with technical efforts to improve the networks.

The main paths for network access into Georgia are through Russia and Turkey, Merilo says. Routers in Russia or otherwise outside Georgian control were hijacked and traffic rerouted, making even connecting to Internet-based e-mail accounts, such as Gmail, difficult to impossible.

Volunteers, many from outside Georgia, helped to set up mirror sites by redirecting domains to new hosting providers in other countries. For a time, Georgia's foreign ministry Web site was hosted on Google's Blogspot service. It was a "whatever works" approach, and within a few days of the initial attack, Georgia began regaining some ability to communicate, via the Internet, with the outside.



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