News outlets, Twitter targeted in alleged cyberattacks

New York, August 28, 2013–The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by cyber-attacks on several websites on Tuesday, including The New York Times, whose site was disabled for several hours. The Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), a group of hackers who support President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, took credit for the attack via its Twitter account. The group also claimed to have attacked the websites of Twitter and The Huffington Post U.K.

“If the Syrian Electronic Army is behind the attack on The New York Times and other websites, this would represent the further escalation of efforts to stymie the flow of information about the civil war in Syria–which is already the most dangerous place in the world to work as a journalist,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “As tensions increase amid the possibility of international military intervention, it is essential that all local and international media are able to report freely on developments.”

The local and international press has been violently targeted by all sides since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. At least 32 journalists have been killed for their work and at least 24 have been abducted in the past 12 months, according to CPJ research. The violence has succeeded in preventing many international journalists, including freelancers, from covering Syria firsthand.

The Times‘ website was unavailable to visitors beginning around 3 p.m. on Tuesday after an attack on the company’s domain name registrar, Melbourne IT, a widely used Web-hosting company based in Australia, the daily reported. At 4:20 p.m., Marc Frons, chief information officer for The New York Times Company, said in a memo to employees that the disruption was “the result of a malicious external attack,” according to the Times report. Some visitors to the website on Tuesday afternoon posted on Twitter that the site had been defaced with the icon of the SEA and a message that said: “Hacked by the Syrian Electronic Army.”

During the disruption, the daily continued to publish stories on alternate sites. The main website appeared to be functioning normally today, though some readers continued to experience difficulties, according to news reports.

The websites of Twitter and the Huffington Post U.K., which share the same domain name registrar, were also attacked, according to news reports. Twitter said in a statement on its website that the “viewing of images and photos was sporadically impacted.” A spokesperson for The Huffington Post told Bloomberg News that the U.K. website had experienced a hack attempt but only “minimal disruption of service.”

Frons said in his memo that the attack appeared to have been committed by the SEA or “someone trying very hard to be them,” according to the Times. The Associated Press reported that computer forensics security firm Renesys Corp traced the Internet protocol addresses used in the attack to the same ones used by the SEA’s website, which the firm said has been hosted in Russia since June. The report did not offer further details.

The SEA has taken credit for a number of attacks on international news outlets it considers anti-Assad, including The Washington Post in August and The Financial Times in May, as well as a failed attempt against in August, according to news reports. The Twitter accounts of various media organizations have also allegedly been targeted by the group. In June, the group took credit for a false tweet about an explosion at the White House posted on the feed of The Associated Press, which caused the Dow Jones Industrial Average to fall 143 points.

In a public address in 2011, Assad appeared to tacitly approve of the SEA’s techniques in a speech, praising the “electronic army which has been a real army in virtual reality.”