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Botnets linked to political hacking in Russia

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Security researcher Jose Nazario has uncovered circumstantial evidence of the use of botnets in politically-motivated denial of service attacks.

Political events in the wider world are sometimes accompanied by hacking incidents in cyberspace, such as defacements and the like. Nobody paid much attention to the issue until the Estonian DDoS events of earlier this year when government and commercial sites in the small Baltic country were taken offline for days in April amid a row with Russia about relocation of a Soviet-era memorial to fallen soldiers and war graves.

Botnets orchestrated by Russian hackers are reckoned to have been used to fire up the Estonian attacks. Involvement of elements from the Russian government is suspected by some, though there's nothing by way of evidence that the Kremlin had a hand in the assaults.

Nazario, a senior security researcher at Arbor Networks, has documented how botnets have featured in more recent politically motivated DDoS events. Attacks on the Ukrainian pro-Russian site of the Party of Regions, a party led by the Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, over the last three months were traced by Nazario back to networks of compromised machines.

Earlier DDoS attacks against the site of Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko, a moderate Ukrainian nationalist, were not traced back to botnet activity.

Last week, Nazario traced attacks on the site of Gary Kasparov, famed Russian chess grand master turned anti-establishment politician, and namarsh.ru, another dissident site, back to a botnet. Both targeted sites seem to have weathered the assault largely unscathed (though the graphics on Kasparov's site failed to load properly).

The motives, much less the perpetrators, of the attacks remain unclear. "I can dream up scenarios where Russian hackers attack Russian dissident websites and politicians’ websites (and why, for example, a Ukrainian site that is pro-Russian is attacked), but I don’t know who is at the keyboard," Nazario writes. "I’ll keep watching these attacks and seeing what I can figure out, but so far it’s just a matter of guessing at motivations." ®

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