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Georgian cyber attacks launched by Russian crime gangs

With help from Twitter, Facebook and Microsoft

Last year's cyber attacks that brought internet traffic to a standstill in Georgia were carried out by civilians and Russian crime gangs, in some cases with the unwitting help of websites and software companies located in the US, according to researchers.

In a report released Monday, a non-profit research group called the US Cyber Consequences Unit (US-CCU) said the cyber attacks, which coincided with the Russian military's invasion of Georgia in August 2008, were carried out by two separate groups. The attacks were significant because they made it almost impossible for citizens and officials alike to communicate about what was happening on the ground during the military operation.

The first group involved used botnets, command and control channels, and other resources operated by Russian crime gangs, Scott Borg, director and chief economist with US-CCU, told The Register. In some cases during the week-long offensive, servers and botnets used to attack Georgian websites simultaneously targeted e-commerce sites.

In all, 11 government websites were felled by the botnets, which directed a torrent of traffic at their targets.

A separate source of the cyber attacks came in the form of civilians who willingly installed improvised software that targeted an additional 43 websites operated by Georgia-based news agencies and other groups. Most of the people carrying out the attacks were Russians, but Russian sympathizers in countries such as Ukraine and Latvia were involved as well.

In many cases, the civilians were recruited using US-based social networking sites. Borg declined to name any of them, but in an article here The Wall Street Journal said the list included Twitter and Facebook. LiveJournal was also used, according to Don Jackson, a researcher from security firm SecureWorks, who read a longer version of the report not available to reporters.

"It's a relatively new development," Borg said. "In the past, if people were organizing a cyber attack, they mostly concentrated on the hacker community. This attack was reaching out to a much larger, wider circle of people. They were providing attack tools that could be used by people with no particular knowledge of attacking and very little knowledge of computers."

In some cases, the attack tools were modifications of two pieces of software made by Microsoft, Jackson said, citing the longer report. One was the Web Application Stress tool. The other was the Web Capacity Analysis Tool, which is included with Microsoft IIS, or Internet Information Services.

The report went on to say that the cyber attacks were carried out with little or no direct involvement from the Russian government or military. While there is no evidence computers or networks belonging to the military or government were used in any of the attacks, the report acknowledges that the timing of the attacks, which launched within hours of the Russian military's invasion, could only have come with a fair amount of cooperation from Russian officials.

Indeed, Jackson, who is a researcher for SecureWorks' Counter Threat Unit, says he has little doubt that the Russian military was involved.

"The first wave of traffic from the botnets coincided almost exactly with the time that (Russian) planes were taking off from the carriers off the coast" of Georgia, he said. "That's a very strange coincidence. You're just not going to find evidence of a covert operation, and if you do they've really done it wrong." ®

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