IN JAPANESE monster movies, battling behemoths squish towns and villages as they wrestle. European internet users who this week suffered delays and dropped connections were victims of an equally eccentric duel. Since March 19th Spamhaus, a spam-fighting charity with headquarters in London and Geneva, has fought hackers intent on disabling it through a massive distributed denial of service attack (DDoS)—a common cyber-assault in which troublemakers order vast networks of hijacked computers to overload their target’s servers with traffic. No stranger to attacks from disgruntled spammers, Spamhaus suffered some downtime but said its services had survived the offensive. Yet the scale of the attack caused congestion across the wider web, gumming up connections for millions of web users attempting to reach unrelated sites.
Patrick Gilmore, chief architect at Akamai Technologies, a networking firm, told the New York Times that the assault was “the largest publicly announced DDoS attack in the history of the internet”. CloudFlare, a security firm which Spamhaus engaged to fend off the attack, says at one point nuisance traffic flooded in at 300 gigabytes per second. That would make it about six times the size of recent, well-publicised DDoS attacks on banks, says Raj Samani of McAfee, another security outfit.
The culprits are still unknown. But analysts are pointing the finger at supporters of CyberBunker, a Dutch web-hosting firm housed in a multi-storey military bunker once inhabited by NATO. Last year Spamhaus added the firm to its blacklist of known spammers, which is used by many internet and e-mail providers to filter the messages which reach their users. CyberBunker has contested that decision ever since. It proudly claims it will host any service except images of child abuse or terrorist sites (its website promotes its products using a photo of Julian Assange, founder of the whistleblowing website Wikileaks). But Jordan Robson, its spokesman, says the organisation has never sent spam.
The digital tsunami unleashed on Spamhaus was produced by exploiting a flaw in the internet’s address system. Many thousands of computers, known as domain name servers, help direct traffic around the network. But smart hackers are now making use of misconfigured ones, tricking them into firing large files at chosen victims. That amplifies the power available to miscreants who may command only a modest number of hijacked PCs. Although this security loophole is well known, the world’s geeks have so far failed to drum up the co-ordinated effort required to reconfigure all the vulnerable DNS machines.
Boffins are still calculating what impact this deluge has had on wider internet use—understandably, web firms do not shout about outages. The slowdown is probably less marked than early reports suggest, and will have been felt most keenly by those using bandwidth-hogging services, like streaming video. Yet the tremors spread by this dust-up reveal an internet more vulnerable to chicanery than its users, and governments, would like. Next time tussling giants might step on something that is hard to patch up.
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