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Panic attack brings down Russian nuke pages

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This story was updated to correct the name of the researcher.

Reports last week of a coordinated attack on websites that provide Russians with advance notice of nuclear accidents appear to be unfounded, a security researcher says. Instead, he says an outage of the emergency information system likely collapsed under a crush of visitors frantically trying to find out if they were in danger of a nuclear catastrophe.

The network of websites, known as ASKRO or the Automatic Radiation Environment Control System, became inaccessible just as the Russian blogosphere ignited with bogus reports that an accident at the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant near St. Petersburg had prompted evacuations. When panic-struck citizens who turned to ASKRO for information found the site unavailable, that only added to their fears that something was amiss.

Officials from Russia's Rosatom state nuclear corporation and elsewhere quickly stepped in and said the rumors were part of an information war designed to discredit the country's nuclear energy program. They went on to say that the temporary failure of ASKRO was the result of a coordinated attack timed to coincide with the disinformation campaign.

But researcher Don Jackson isn't buying that last part.

"While these campaigns made use of technology, there is still no evidence of the reported cyber attack on the ASKRO system and no signs of the hackers behind it," Jackson wrote in a report. "No one has come forward with any information on the attack - no traffic patterns, no IP addresses, etc. - and unlike many hacktivism attacks, no evidence of any plan for a cyber attack on the affected websites - aspirational or operational - was found on any hacker or activist websites monitored by intelligence services."

Jackson doesn't doubt that the ASKRO site was inaccessible. But he says it was brought down not by hackers, but by a higher-than-normal load that resulted as Russians sought additional information.

While Jackson is employed by Atlanta-based SecureWorks, he released his report (PDF) independently on his own website. ®

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