'Biggest ever' cyber attack raises DDoS concerns

With Internet speeds slowing for users all over the world, it emerged yesterday that one of the largest cyber attacks ever seen had severely hit our online infrastructure, raising fears over the wider impact of DDoS assaults.

The episode stemmed from a row between spam filtering company Spamhaus and Dutch web host Cyberbunker, which took exception to Spamhaus’s decision to block servers it maintained, claiming the firm did not have the right to decide what should and should not go on the Internet.

Spamhaus alleges that Cyberbunker launched a series of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks in retaliation alongside criminal gangs from Eastern Europe, and said the scale of the assault was unprecedented.

DDoS attacks, which slow or crash servers by overwhelming them with traffic, are nothing new in the security landscape, but the growth of the underground economy dealing in cyber attacks is adding increasing severity to the problem. Arguably harder to foil than intricate hacks, DDoS barrages have broken the security systems of some of the world’s largest organisations, and the Cyberbunker incident demonstrates the extent to which the attacks can affect the wider Internet, and in turn, global business.

“The attack on Spamhaus, and their upstream security and Internet providers, is yet another example of how DDoS has become the de facto weapon of choice for cyber-activists, cyber-criminals, business competitors and others,” says Marty Meyer, President of US firm Corero Network Security. “Unfortunately, the shared infrastructure that is the Internet can be vulnerable to this type of attack on the DNS system.”

As emphasised by Meyer, the implications are serious for both everyday users and major companies whose services rely on the net – such as entertainment giant Netflix, which suffered as a result of the Spamhaus-Cyberbunker dispute.

“It illustrates the collateral damage that can be felt by individuals trying to access sites and businesses like Netflix for whom the web is the cornerstone of their business. It also raises a worrying red flag that if an organisation like Cyberbunker could allegedly unleash this much damage, could a cyber-terrorist or state sponsored attacker use similar tactics to disrupt the communication and business channels of its enemies that rely on the Internet?”

Such a possibility has not been lost on national governments, with the UK announcing the formation of a new cybercrime project yesterday, which aims to bring private and public sector collaboration to safeguard business from the growing danger of online attacks.

The issue has been heavily on the agenda in Washington too, with President Obama ramping up the Department of Homeland Security’s role in dealing with cyber threats, and also gaining permission to launch pre-emptive cyber strikes on foreign groups deemed a threat to the US.