Attacks Against Media and Human Rights Websites
Attacks on organizations’ websites have become an increasingly potent weapon in the 21st-century battles over information. With the recent targeting of an independent newspaper in Russia and firms that refused to do business with the Wikileaks site, the issue has come into sharp focus, with financial and civil liberties questions hanging in the balance. Among those at risk of such attacks, independent media and organizations dedicated to human-rights issues are some of the most obvious — and consequential — targets.
A 2010 study by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, “Distributed Denial of Service Attacks Against Independent Media and Human Rights Sites,” looks at both the frequency and type of website attacks — including denial of service, intrusion and defacement — that have been launched against such groups. The authors built a database of reported attacks in 2009 and 2010, surveyed 45 such organizations, and looked at the particular vulnerabilities of these groups.
Important points in the study include:
- Of the 45 groups surveyed, 72% said they experienced filtering of their content at the national network level, 62% experienced denial of service attacks, and nearly 50% experienced unexplained downtime for seven days or more.
- The two major disruption methods are “brute force” attacks, in which a network of compromised computers launches an overwhelming number of data requests; and “application attacks,” in which server, system and software vulnerabilities are exploited.
- Even outside high-profile public events or emergencies such as elections, protests or military actions, denial-of-service attacks against independent media and human rights sites became more common in 2010.
- Given the high publicity that that the attacks on companies refusing to do business with Wikileaks — known as “Operation Payback” — received, such attacks are expected to become even more common.
The study’s authors suggest that potentially vulnerable organizations should consider moving their sites inside major networks that have better defense capabilities; improve their levels of expertise to better cope with an attack; and maintain a duplicate copy of their site in a secure, unpublicized location.
Tags: crime, news, technology, human rights
Note to instructor: The suggested assignments are designed for flexibility. They can be used in whole or part and can be adapted to a particular task -- for example, the newswriting assignments could be applied to the writing of the headline, the lead, the nut graph or the full story. Material from the assignments could also be combined with other material, for example, in the writing of a background, feature or local-angle story.
Read the Harvard University study "Distributed Denial of Service Attacks Against Independent Media and Human Rights Sites.”
- Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
- Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
Read the issue-related New York Times article "Hackers Attack Those Seen as Wikileaks Enemies."
- If you were to rewrite the article based on knowledge of the study, what key changes would you make?
- Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
- Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.