By Bryan Hamman, Arbor Network’s territory manager for Sub-Saharan Africa
Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks are more popular and dangerous today than at any time in history.
In 20 years, DDoS attacks have gone from being a novelty to a nuisance, and finally today they represent a serious threat against the availability and functionality of websites, online services and applications.
Easy-to-use tools and cheap attack services have widened the potential net that DDoS attacks can cast.
Today, anyone with a grievance and an Internet connection can launch an attack. If we take a look back about 20 years or so, historic news headlines and the increasing size of attacks through the years indicate that this problem isn’t going to go away.
Looking back at some of the attacks down the years
- 1996: Internet service provider (ISP) PANIX is struck by a sustained DDoS attack, affecting businesses that use Panix as their ISP.
· 1996: CERT/ CC – the Computer Emergency Response Team/ Coordination Center, a government-funded research and development centre based at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh – releases an advisory on the growing phenomenon of TCP SYN floods using spoofed source IP addresses.
· 1997: The world sees the arrival of early DDoS tools, such as Trinoo, Tribe Flood Network, TFN2K, Shaft, and others, often coded by their authors. Primitive DDoS networks emerge, using IRC and Eggdrop or the Sub7 Trojan.
· 1998: The document RFC 2267 is published, which details how network administrators can defeat DDoS attacks via anti-spoofing measures. This document eventually becomes a best current practice adopted by many networking vendors.
· 1998: The Smurf Amplifier Registry is launched to help discover and disable “Smurf” amplifiers, which are abused in DDoS attacks. Smurf Attacks use a spoofed broadcast ICMP ping to then reflect back to a victim to create the attack traffic. By 2012 over 193,000 networks have been found and fixed.
· 1998: Michael Calce, aka 15-year-old ‘Mafiaboy’, launches sustained DDoS attacks on multiple major eCommerce sites including Amazon, CNN, Dell, E*Trade, eBay, and Yahoo!. At the time, Yahoo! was the biggest search engine in the world. He is investigated by the FBI. The Montreal Youth Court sentenced him on September 12, 2001, to eight months of “open custody”, one year of probation, restricted use of the Internet, and a small fine.
· 2002: Significant “Smurf” attacks strike the root DNS servers and cause some outages for some sites. The attacks are eventually repelled. Total traffic eventually hits 900 Mbps.
· 2007: The former Soviet republic of Estonia is hit with sustained DDoS attacks following diplomatic tensions with Russia. The issues arise after Estonia moves a statue honouring Soviet forces who served in World War II against Nazi Germany.
· 2008: Russia is accused of attacking Georgian government websites in a cyber war to accompany its military bombardment, weeks before the invasion of the disputed territory of South Ossetia by Russian troops.
· 2008: Project Chanology is launched by members of “Anonymous”, a leaderless Internet-based group, in response to the Church of Scientology trying to remove an infamous Tom Cruise interview video from the Internet. Project Chanology used DDoS as part of its measures to try to disrupt the Church of Scientology’s operations.
· 2011: Members of Anonymous launch attacks against the sites of PayPal, Visa, and MasterCard in 2011 after the payment service providers refused to process financial donations intended for WikiLeaks.
· 2011: A DDoS attack on Sony is proportedly used to block the detection of a data breach that leads to the extraction of millions of customer records for PlayStation Network users.
· 2011 to 2012: Between December 2011 and March 2012, against a background of political tension in Russia including presidential elections, which were fraught with political demonstrations, DDoS attacks enter the political landscape, with DDoS attacks on both opposition as well as pro-government sites. The world sees Russian cybercriminal methods being used for political ends.
· 2012: Similarly, although arguably not so widely, DDoS attacks are used for political reasons when Canada’s New Democrat Party sees its leadership election negatively affected by a DDoS attack that delays voting and reduced turnout.
· 2012: Unknown groups hit various US and UK government-related websites in protest at these governments’ Wikileaks position.
· 2013: FBI says more cooperation with banks is key in probing cyberattacks.
· 2013: Largest attack reaches 300Gbps – Dutch anti-spam website Spamhaus is targeted for naming and blacklisting cybercrime hosting enterprises, spam and botnet operations.
· 2014: PlayStation Network and Xbox Live are attacked on Christmas Day.
· 2014: In Hong Kong, a huge attack is carried out against the territory’s pro-democracy websites. While many assumed that the culprit would have been the Chinese government, this is not necessarily certain. The attacker could, however, be someone who is not sympathetic with the Hong Kong democracy movement, or someone trying to make the Chinese government look bad.
· 2015: The Turkish Internet is hit with a massive DDoS attack, which came in the wake of Turkey shooting down a Russian military aircraft.
· 2015: British phone and broadband provider, TalkTalk, which has over four million UK customers, is hit by a DDoS attack, which is used as a smokescreen while customers’ personal information is stolen.
· 2015: On New Year’s Eve of 2015, the BBC’s entire domain, including its on-demand television and radio player, is down for three hours and continues to have issues for the rest of the day. The attack is claimed by a group called the “New World Hackers”.
· 2016: An IoT botnet targets a major international event with sophisticated, large-scale DDoS attacks sustaining 500 gb/sec in attack traffic for the duration of the event.· 2016: The Mirai IoT botnet launches 1Tbps multi vector DDoS attack against DNS infrastructure, taking many of the world’s most popular websites offline.
Looking forward – where to from here?
We can see clearly, when we look at the timeline of some of the most prominent DDoS attacks over the past two decades, that perpetrators launch these attacks for a variety of reasons.
They can be hackers who want to make a statement, as in the case of Mafiaboy; governments of countries at war using cyberwarfare tactics as part of their general arsenal; and criminals trying to blackmail online businesses.
There are also examples when cyber activists show displeasure against their targets, such as the 2011 attacks by members of Anonymous against the sites of PayPal, Visa and MasterCard, and the 2013 attacks against Spamhaus.
The online gaming industry has also been targeted, with the blame generally going to disgruntled players or even competitors. We’ve also seen instances when DDoS attacks are used as a smokescreen to camouflage or draw attention away from other criminal activity an attacker might be doing, such as stealing data from the victim’s network, as in the 2015 example of the UK telecom TalkTalk last year.
The Internet of Things brings new demands and requirements to DDoS protection.
The Mirai IoT botnet reminds us that manufacturers and vendors also have a growing responsibility with respect to their technology and how it will be applied in diverse environments.
They need to test for and consider the potential for exploitation. Ideally, all devices should be assessed for risk at the manufacturer and then again by those who are responsible for selling/ implementing them in enterprises.
Previously, it used to be that only certain types of business would be likely targets for a DDoS attack, with finance, gaming and e-commerce at the top of the list.
Today, any business, for any reason, can become a target of a DDoS attack. A number of DDoS-for-hire services, for example, will take down a competitor’s website for any business that wants to hire them.
The only answer, therefore, is to ensure you are protected.