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Cyber-attacks on press up in number, down in cost

Novaya Gazeta, a leading Russian independent news outlet, has been under cyber-attack.

The last two weeks have seen a spate of denial-of-service (DOS) attacks against news sites, coordinated attempts to overwhelm outlets with fake incoming data so the sites cannot respond to legitimate users.

On Wednesday, we covered a DOS attack on the U.S. site change.org, apparently in reaction to its petition calling for the release of the detained artist and social critic Ai Weiwei. On Tuesday, we described the widespread attacks on Malaysian media in the run-up to last weekend's election in Sarawak.

LiveJournal, the company at the heart of the Russian-speaking blogosphere, has also been struggling with denial-of-service problems. The attacks, which began in late March, were seemingly aimed at anti-corruption blogger Aleksei Navalny. However, by slowing down or stopping the working of the entire LiveJournal service, they ended up affecting a sizeable proportion of bloggers across the Runet.

The assault on LiveJournal abated on April 6, only to be followed by a new DOS attack on Novaya Gazeta, a leading Russian independent newspaper. Reports from security experts Kaspersky Labs suggest that both Russian takedowns used the Optima/Darkness botnet, a set of personal computers belonging to innocent users that have been hijacked by malware placed are under control of organized criminals.

Novaya Gazeta has demanded that the local authorities investigate the attack. Currently, however, prosecutions against botnet operators and their clients are few and far between. This, despite the growing use of DOS attacks for commercial and political reasons--and the dropping cost of such services. In particular, the Darkness botnet used in the Russian attacks was advertising in December as accepting any "targets regardless of their theme" for "on average... $50 per 24-hour period."

Attacks on LiveJournal and Novaya Gazeta might cost considerably more than that, since both websites had strong defenses in place as a result of previous assaults. But it seems that, as ever, the opponents of the press are more than willing to pay criminals to silence independent media online. And in too many nations, the price of doing so, and the probability of any repercussions, continues to be low.

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