Lithuania Weathers Cyber Attack, Braces for Round 2
Hundreds of Lithuanian government and corporate Web sites were hacked and plastered with Soviet-era symbols and other digital graffiti this week in what appears to be a coordinated cyber attack launched by Russian hacker groups.
A New York Times story reports that Lithuanian officials did not directly accuse Russian hackers of initiating the attacks, but said they had come from foreign computers. However, iDefense, a security intelligence firm, based in Reston, Va., attributed the attacks to nationalistic Russian hacker groups protesting a new Lithuanian law banning the display of Soviet emblems, including honors won during World War II.
According to Lithuanian media reports, the attacks shut down the Web sites of the national ethics body, the securities and exchange commission, the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party, among others. iDefense said hacker groups used Internet forums and blasted spam e-mails to spotlight a manifesto called "Hackers United Against External Threats to Russia," which called for an expansion of the targets to include Ukraine, the rest of the Baltic states, and "flagrant" Western nations for supporting the expansion of NATO.
iDefense analyst Kimberly Zenz said for a while, it was unclear whether the attacks would die off or escalate into an assault akin to the cyber blitz unleashed last year against Estonia. In April 2007, the ultra-wired country suffered major disruptions in much of its information infrastructure, thanks largely to Russian hackers who were upset over the removal of a Soviet World War II memorial from the center of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.
One hacker Web site, hack-wars.ru, appeared to take a central role in organizing the attacks, Zenz said.
"They said they wanted to offer training and coordination so that whenever they want to attack someone online they have a force of soldiers ready to go," she said. "They want to unite Russian hackers into an organized political hack force."
But by Monday afternoon, most of the tagged Lithuanian Web sites were back to displaying their normal content, and no escalation of the attack had materialized.
The offensive coincided with a visit to the United States by Lithuanian Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas, who met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday. When asked about the significance of the attacks at an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., yesterday, Kikilas called the situation "very serious," and said he planned to raise the matter in his discussions this week with U.S. officials.
"I believe all NATO countries have to consider this issue of cyberspace security as part of our security," Kirkilas said.
Kirkilas added that his country is cooperating with officials in Estonia, which will serve as the home for a new cyber defense center that seven NATO allies established in May as a means to boost the alliance's defenses against cyber attacks.
There is an elaborate back story to why the Lithuanian anti-Soviet memorabilia law angered Russian hackers. An iDefense white paper explains: "While many ethnic Lithuanians view Soviet emblems as a painful reminder of Soviet occupation, many Russians viewed the ban as a deliberate insult to veterans who fought the Nazis, and to the large number of ethnic Russians who live in the Baltics, many of whom remain stateless more than 15 years after independence."
Russian government officials denied involvement in last year's attacks against Estonia, Definitively tying the assaults back to Moscow would have been a tall order, as most of the digital foot soldiers used in last year's cyber offensive were "bots," hacked home PCs that are remote-controlled by attackers.
Unlike the Chinese -- who have stated their strategy to dominate the electronic battlefield quite clearly and loudly -- the Russian government has been comparatively silent on its cyber offensive goals in the 21st Century.
Perhaps the closest thing to a cyber doctrine I've seen put forth by Russian officials comes from fringe leaders in the Russian government. On the Web site of one Russian ultranationalist hacker group known as the Slavic Union, a source of mine recently located a snapshot of a letter of praise written by Nikolai Kuryanovich, a member of the Russian Duma. The missive is dated March 2006, and addresses the Slavic Union after the group had just completed a series of successful attacks against Israeli Web sites.
The translated version of Kuryanovich's letter follows:
"The 21st century is the century of information. And during this period in the life of mankind the Internet becomes even more unavoidable, necessary and important. At the same time it becomes more dangerous. The Internet has its own laws, its own rules and to a degree within it run another life outside of reality.
"In the very near future many conflicts will not take place on the open field of battle, but rather in spaces on the Internet, fought with the aid of information soldiers, that is hackers. This means that a small force of hackers is stronger than the multi-thousand force of the current armed forces."
"...As Deputy of the State Duma and member of the Security Committee, I want to present you with the thanks and appreciation of the Information department of the NSD "Slavic Union" for your vigilance and your recent suppression of Russophobe and others on the Internet, Russophobes that fan the flames of inter-religious discord and provide related materials. I hope that from now on your work will not become any less productive or ideologically adjusted."
July 3, 2008; 12:10 PM ET
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