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Malaysian election sparks web blocking/DDoS claims

Rights groups, security firms, opposition leaders cry foul

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Opposition leaders and human rights activists have warned that Malaysia’s recent elections were tarnished with widespread web blocking and DDoS attacks designed to deprive voters of information about opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) before going to the polls.

Barisan Nasional (BN) extended its 56-year rule by storming to victory on Sunday, winning 133 parliamentary seats out of a total of 222 while PR managed just 89, even though the result was expected to be much tighter.

PR leader Anwar Ibrahim immediately branded the elections a fix, claiming widespread fraud and even that the ruling coalition had flown in tens of thousands of “phantom voters” from Borneo states to help sway the result.

Several independent sources have argued that online censorship was also used to disrupt the opposition’s campaign efforts in the run-up to the elections.

Last week Human Rights Watch revealed that popular online news site Malaysiakini, which is often critical of the government, had been experiencing service outages and technical problems since April 20, and also had its Twitter accounts briefly hacked and taken over.

Earlier, on April 11, London-based Malaysian radio web portals Radio Free Malaysia, Radio Free Sarawak, and Sarawak Report were hit by a large scale DDoS attack which generated over 130 million hits on the sites in three-and-a-half hours, taking them out of action for five days.

Web security firm Sucuri confirmed the DDoS-ing of news sites in a blog post.

"We won’t go into the politics, but one of our client’s sites (a popular Malaysian news source that we won’t name), started to suffer a very large scale DDOS,” wrote malware researcher David Dede.

“Just in the last 24 hrs, 36,367 (yes, 36 thousand different IP addresses) were used to attack this site. It means that the people behind it have good power. What is interesting is that all IP addresses also come from Malaysian IP ranges and it seems to come from compromised desktops.”

The disruption was apparently not confined to DDoS attacks.

Digital rights group Access claimed that certain ISPs were selectively blocking content critical of or embarrassing to the ruling coalition – first entire web sites but then individual pages such as specific YouTube clips or Facebook content.

The group has a detailed summary of its findings here.

It concluded that: “this behavior points to the likely use of DPI or proxy devices at the ISP level, with custom (if poorly) written rules to first trigger off the HTTP path portion of the URL, and subsequently drop packets on the server to user return path.”

Given the allegations it’s perhaps not surprising that pressure group Reporters Without Borders pushed Malaysia down 23 points to 145th on its 2013 World Press Freedom Index – its lowest ever ranking.

The report added:

Despite an all-out battle by rights activists and online media outlets, a campaign of repression by the government, illustrated by the crackdown on the “Bersih 3.0” protest in April, and repeated censorship efforts, continue to undermine basic freedoms, in particular the right to information.

Malaysia was also recently included on the list of countries revealed to have been using the controversial spyware FinFisher, marketed to governments around the world as "lawful interception" software. ®

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