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Chernobyl coverage blows up in Radio Free Europe's face

DDOS bomb

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Websites run by Radio Free Europe have been under a fierce cyber attack that coincided with coverage over the weekend of a rally organized by opposition to the Belarusian opposition.

The distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack initially targeted only the RFE's Belarus service, which starting on Saturday was inundated with as many as 50,000 fake pings every second, according the this RFE account. On Monday, it continued to be affected. At least seven other RFE sites for Kosovo, Azerbaijan, Tatar-Bashkir, Farda, South Slavic, Russia and Tajikistan, were also attacked but have mostly been brought back online.

The primary target was the Belarus service, which on Saturday - the 22nd anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster - offered live coverage of a rally in which thousands of people protested the plight of uncompensated victims and a government decision to build a new nuclear plant. Other Belarusian websites were also hit, including the Minsk-based nongovernmental organization Charter 97.

RFE provided no solid evidence, but said the Belarusian government was most likely behind the attacks. The Belarusians "see free information - flowing information of ideas and so forth - as the oxygen of civil society," RFE President Jeffrey Gedmin said. "They'll do anything they can to cut it off. If it means jamming, if it means cyber attacks, that's what they'll do."

While a state-sponsored attack isn't outside the realm of possibility, there was no mention that it might be the grassroots work of Belarusian nationalists. Recent attacks against CNN.com, were the work of Chinese hacktivists who downloaded and installed DDoS applications as a way of registering their displeasure of the news site's recent coverage of demonstrations against the Olympic torch relay.

"Utilizing the bandwidth of the over 200 million nationalism minded Chinese Internet users can greatly outpace any botnet's capacity if coordinated," researcher Dancho Danchev wrote. To that end, he said, Chinese script kiddies circulated programs such as anticnn.exe and Super DDoS.

Attacks such as these were also waged last year against Estonia and are sometimes referred to as "asymmetric" because a relatively small group of individuals with modest means is able to hobble much a bigger target. It's not hard to imagine that something similar is afoot in Belarus.

Regardless of who is behind the attacks, the result is same, and that is the protest coverage is being disrupted.

"For our listeners in Belarus, it's quite dramatic, spokeswoman Diane Zeleny told the Associated Press. "They cannot reach us right now. This is a pretty massive attack." ®

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