Aug 2, 2007

Russian Cyber Gunslingers For Hire

A [Russian] publication called Chacker recently published -- with no legal consequences -- precise instructions on how to hack into the Web sites of foreign governments. Sergei Pokrovsky, the publication's editor-in-chief, readily admits to having planted anti-NATO slogans on the organization's computers in Washington and Brussels in 1999. It was at a time when the Western defense alliance had just stopped Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic, a friend of Moscow's, from continuing his ethnic cleansing activities in Kosovo by bombing the Yugoslav capital Belgrade. "I was simply overcome by emotion," says Pokrovsky. "We knew that we wouldn't be punished for it."

DDoS attacks have become common practice in Russia. In the wild 1990s, shady businesspeople would hire thugs or even contract killers to intimidate their competitors. Nowadays they increasingly use the services of cyber vandals to accomplish the same objective. Hackers are especially fond of targeting companies like Infobox, which earn their money directly on or using the Internet. Attackers shut down the systems of OSMP, a Moscow provider of online payment services, for five hours in June, causing damage upwards of $150,000. ...

Perhaps the Wild East would be a more apt description. Russian-speaking hackers, in particular, offer their criminal services online in return for payment, posing a threat to companies worldwide, including in the West. As far back as the mid-1990s, Vladimir Levin, a mathematician from St. Petersburg, hacked into the main computer of US banking giant Citibank and diverted over $10 million to the accounts of his friends.

In August 2005, hackers, presumably from Eastern Europe, demanded that German online gambling site Fluxx pay them €40,000 in the form of a Western Union wire transfer, in return for their stopping DDoS attacks on the company. The Germans refused to pay. British and other online casinos and gambling sites were not as resolute -- they paid a total of $4 million in ransom money to a gang of Russian hackers.

Cyber warriors have also targeted political Web sites. This spring they launched multiple attacks on the Web site of former world chess champion Garry Kasparov's Other Russia movement (more...). Each attack happened shortly before the group had planned to stage demonstrations against Russian President Vladimir Putin. It was a heavy blow to the opposition movement. Because the Kremlin controls Russian television and large parts of the press, opposition groups depend on the Internet to call their supporters to action.

The country's few independent media outlets have also faced DDoS attacks. One of them is Echo Moscow, a radio station critical of the government. In early May the station's Web site crashed in response to a powerful hacker attack. Although Echo Moscow continued to broadcast, its popular Web site was out of commission for four days.

"The attack was big, well-planned and clearly ordered by someone," says Alexei Venediktov, the station's editor-in-chief, who has turned Echo Moscow into one of Russia's most prominent media outlets. Venediktov sees the attacks as "a new tool in the fight against rebellious editorial departments. This was a trial run for the coming elections."

A new parliament will be elected in December, and the presidential election is set for next March. "My clients," says one hacker named Sergei, "also include political structures."

Sergei reveals that an attack of the kind that was directed at Echo Moscow's site would cost no more than $400 per day. It's a small price to pay for silencing the Internet voice of the Kremlin's most prominent critic. "I can do everything," Sergei brags, "but everything has its price."

But in late April Sergei went into battle without being paid anything at all. When the conflict between Russia and Estonia over an Estonian plan to move a Soviet war memorial (more...) began to escalate, Sergei had his cyber zombies attack the neighboring country.

Like many nationalistic Russian hackers, he felt offended by the Estonians. "Of course I participated," says Sergei, "out of idealism."

No comments: