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Online anonymity fueled 'Web War' on Estonia

Hactivist assault as 'tulip frenzy'

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The attacks that paralyzed Estonian internet traffic for three days in 2007 were fueled by online anonymity and a phenomenon known as contagion, according to a report by three academics.

The paper, titled Storming the Servers: A Social Psychological Analysis of the First Internet War, is among the first to study the social and psychological forces that contributed to the massive DDoS, or distributed denial of service, attacks on Estonia. They are likely to play out in future online conflicts, the authors warn.

Chief among the contributors was the anonymity of online interactions, which the authors said created a disregard for established social mores.

"Participants in the attacks both transmitted instructions on how to participate and took part in the DDoS attacks themselves from the privacy of their offices, internet cafes, and homes," the paper explains. "One of the many ways in which communication via the internet differs from face-to-face communication is the relative anonymity afforded by the communication mode."

Anyone who has ever participated in an online discussion knows that the potential runs high for flaming and other highly aggressive behavior. The paper speculates that the relative anonymity that comes with online interaction may be to blame because it decreases the effect of an individual's internal standards of conduct. The resulting lack of accountability may have spurred on people who were already angry at Estonia.

The researchers dubbed the April 2007 assault "Web War One" because, they said, it is "the first documented example of a series of coordinated attacks that successfully incapacitated the online infrastructure of a nation for several days." Websites belonging to Estonia's president, prime minister, parliament, government agencies, banks, and news agencies were incapacitated for days. One bank reported a loss of $1m, while government officials lost access to email.

The crippling DDoS attacks began shortly after Estonia's government announced plans to move a World War II memorial depicting a Soviet soldier who had liberated the country from German occupation. The bronze statue and the graves of Soviet soldiers were to be relocated from a park in the heart of the Estonian capital of Tallinn to a graveyard outside the city. People loyal to Russia, both living in Estonia and abroad, took deep offense.

Anonymity wasn't the only internet phenomenon that contributed to the ensuing attacks. The researchers also identified adherence to group norms, contagion, and social validation as concepts that allowed the protests to proliferate over the internet.

Psychologists and sociologists have long believed that people are more likely to engage in behaviors, even those widely regarded as wrong, when they see others doing it.

"This suggests that as more members of the Russian-language internet posted messages about their participation in the attacks and urged others to join, a norm emerged that participation was the appropriate course of action," the paper posits.

The ability of ideas and memes to spread rapidly on the internet also played a role. The authors compared the furor immediately following the Estonian authorities' announcement to the European tulip frenzy in the mid 1500s, which drove the price of the bulbous plant to astronomical heights before crashing back to earth, along with the fortunes of many.

"We posit that information on how to participate in the attacks spread much as various panics, manias, and sprees have in times past," the researchers wrote. "Online communication can facilitate contagion because of the rapidity and broad reach of transmission."

The paper was authored by Rosanna Guadagno of the Department of Psychology at University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa; Robert Cialdini of the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University, Tempe; and Gadi Evron of the Yuval Ne'eman Tel Aviv Workshop for Science, Technology and Security. It is available here. ®

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