Scale of cyber attacks ‘rare and serious’

A series of cyber attacks this week on websites belonging to exiled Burmese media have gained strength, with a second, and far more intense, assault yesterday hitting DVB.

Speculation as to the timing of the DDoS, or distributed denial-of-service, attacks – which began on 27 September on the three-year anniversary of Burma’s 2007 monk-led uprising – has in fact centred on the looming elections. Media workers believe the Burmese junta is carrying out a test run, and fear more attacks are on the way.

At around 7.30pm UTC yesterday, an attack of 4.5 Gbps (Gigabits-per-second) – or 30 times larger than Monday’s attack – hit the DVB website. The attackers also targeted the infrastructure of DVB’s carrier in Norway.

The attack is technically known as a ‘RESET flood attack’, better described as a “denial of voice” attack, according to a Europe-based cyber-security expert who asked to remain anonymous. He added that the attackers “are taking advantage of legal havens”, and that its persistence and scale “is rare and serious”.

Two other exiled Burmese websites belonging to The Irrawaddy and Mizzima have also been brought down. The Irrawaddy claimed yesterday that its attack had originated from China Telecom. A seperate, but less serious, attack on the DVB website on 20 September used equipment in Russia, Georgia, Vietnam, Israel and Kazakhstan, amongst others.

Speaking to DVB today, The Irrawaddy’s editor-in-chief, Aung Zaw, said that its attack has now been suspended but a new one “could be imminent”.

“We’ve been trying to move to a new server – the Burmese intelligence knows we are a vulnerable website so they can come and attack us at any time,” he said, adding that its origin in China Telecom “doesn’t surprise me, but I don’t think Chinese officials are involved”.

Cyber-criminals are known to build their own attack infrastructure, or otherwise hire one, meaning that top-level Chinese officials may be unaware of their existence in the country.

The attacks bode ill for the looming elections in Burma – the ruling generals fired a warning shot for media earlier this month when they stopped the visa-on-arrival scheme, widely believed to be a ploy to keep journalists and observers out of the country during the polls.

Aung Zaw said there were “major concerns” about media security during the elections, adding that “the regime wants to silence all information pipelines”. It has already banned election monitors from entering, while critics have derided the polls as a sham aimed at cementing military rule.

Burma already has some of the world’s most draconian media laws, and ranked 171 out of 175 countries in the Reporters San Frontieres (RSF) Press Freedom Index for 2009. Out of the 2,150-plus political prisoners in Burma, around 15 are journalists, and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) last year branded Burma “the worst country to be a blogger”.

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