On Dutch Banking Woes and DDoS Attacks

DDOS-attackIf you don’t live in the Netherlands or don’t happen to have a Dutch bank account, you can certainly be forgiven for not having caught wind of the major banking woes that have been plaguing the Dutch. For weeks now, massive DDoS attacks (linked article in Dutch) have brought low the online services of several banks, interrupting mobile payments and slowing down overall online financial traffic. At the center of the digital storms is ING, which was hit first (Dutch) and is hit the most often (Dutch), but Rabobank, ABN AMRO and SNS Bank are also frequent targets. Dutch online payment system iDeal has also been attacked several times, impacting virtually all Dutch banks as well as the many online retailers that use it.

What the goal behind this wave of DDoS attacks is, is as yet unknown, but there are several possible motives at play. It could be simple vandalism, a rather hefty attempt at misdirection to cover up real hacking attempts, or it could have something to do with ING and ABN AMRO being implicated or involved with investigations into tax evasion through offshore banking by the ICIJ. The latter seems unlikely, as most of the DDoS traffic appears to be coming from Romania (according to hackers collective HacksIn – I had a link about that, but lost it somehow) and no motive has made itself known thus far. It was a matter of time until Anonymous came along to jump on the bandwagon, and indeed its Dutch chapter appears to have done so this week when someone posing as Anonymous posted a message on Pastebin. In it, they claim to know who is behind the DDoS attacks (a group of Muslim extremists called Izz al-Din al Qassam Cyber Fighters), and that the Dutch people should go out and collect their money from these banks because it is not safe there.

There are, however, some issues with this post on Pastebin. Firstly, the group they blame for the DDoS attacks is in fact the group responsible for attacks on US BANKS, and there is no discernible link between the US banks being hit or the Dutch banks currently under attack. The motive for the attack against US banks seems clear: Izz al-Din al Qassam demands the removal of the movie “Innocence of Muslims” from Youtube. Once the movie is removed the attacks will stop, they claim. To my knowledge, no such demands have been made here in the Netherlands.

The second issue is that the advice posed by Anonymous would, in fact, immediately collapse the Dutch financial market, as no Dutch bank is currently strong enough to survive such a proposed bank run. They simply don’t have sufficient cash in their vaults. In other words: this is a really bad idea.

So what now?
For starters, ING should hire someone who knows how to communicate during a crisis. Its obvious that they suck at it. They’ve finally stepped off their “Silence, Evade, Deny” strategy but its taken a while. All major companies should look into this, because they may very well be next. Second, major companies with a serious online presence should really start taking this stuff seriously. DDoS attacks are hardly new material to deal with, and proper impact negation tactics have been around for a while. If your income is dependant on online services and this income is significant, get a real ISP that understands this and has expertise in countering such digital vandalism such as Arbor Networks or Prolexic.

The bad news is that according to a recent Prolexic report, DDoS attacks are getting increasingly stronger. They have seen the first 130GB/s DDoS attack this year, and during the first quarter of this year the average attack bandwidth was 48.25GB/s, which signifies a whopping 718% increase over last year. The increase seems to come from a change of victims in the botnets (Dutch) they use. Apparently, they are now targeting web servers especially for their higher bandwidth capacity, which in turn increases overall attack bandwidth. On top of that, the DDoS attack seems to have regained its popularity because the targetlist is growing. Airlines such as KLM (Dutch) and Dutch authentication firm DigID (Dutch) have also recently been hit with massive attacks. In an effort to stave off this wave of disruptions, the Dutch National Cyber Security Center has been organising collective defense (Dutch) between Dutch banks, but it seems they may have to include firms from other walks of life as well. I think we can safely conclude that this avenue of attack is still very worthwhile and won’t be going away anytime soon.

In fact, things may get a lot worse if this newly discovered DDoS technique gets incorporated. Apparently Incapsula mitigated a small attack of 4GB/s recently, and they traced it back to a single source. Generating 8 million DNS queries per second, causing ALL of the 4 GB/s traffic by its lonesome, certainly qualifies it to be called a DDoS Cannon instead of a lowly bot. I don’t know if it is technically feasible, but imagine 100K+ systems doing this.

Wrapping up this piece, I would like to ask mainstream news reporters to please start learning some basic truths about information security. Stop referring to DDos attacks as “(sophisticated) cyber attacks”. They’re not. A DDoS attack is annoying, yes. But on the scale of sophistication they rate roughly as digital graffiti. Also, some major outages are caused by stupidity from the victim rather than an outside source. At least ONE major outage on april 4th of this year at ING was caused by someone messing up certain files that had to be read into a system. This caused a major outage and customers seeing the wrong amount on their bank accounts. This incident was also the most significant failure of ING’s webcare / crisis communication because they didn’t do anything until the problem was almost fixed (many hours later). Still, mainstream media fed the panic frenzy that it was an external “sophisticated cyber attack” until the absolute very end. Very poor reporting if you ask me. Proper reporting matters because your news is read by people who take it for immediate truth. You can, and do, cause panic and unrest when you blow things out of proportion, so please stop doing so. Thank you.

Social Media as a Cyber Warfare Gamechanger

September of 2012 will live on in infamy for a large number of people. It was the month of the massive riots by Islamic extremists who, incited by the ever present radical imams, stormed several US embassies, allegedly over a months-old, poorly crafted Youtube video that ironically decried the violence of Islam. Most notable of which were the embassies of Egypt and Libya, where four Americans lost their lives; one of which was an American ambassador. Riots and demonstrations followed all over the globe for about a week. I say allegedly because a closer scrutiny of what happened will tell you an entirely different story.

Stoking an Insurgency
It´s not the first time that something seemingly innocuous gets blown out of proportion by religious extremists with their own agenda; some of you may recall the Mohammed cartoon riots or pick any of the incidents listed in the article by Michelle Malkin who goes into this a lot more eloquently than I ever could. Regardless, my point is that there is a lot more to this Innocence of Muslims riot than meets the eye, as the ever well-informed good people of Sofrep.com will tell you. They have a lot more information than what you are likely to have seen in the press.  The cliff notes are quite simple and a lot more easily explained than what the press is force-feeding us:

Trained soldiers executed a coordinated attack on multiple US embassies at the same time. These so-called ´rioters´ were carrying RPG´s with them. You know, as you do when out shopping on a summer day in Benghazi. Not only was this not a spontaneous event, but chatter about this meticulously planned attack was picked up by various intelligence agencies beforehand and people in Washington are now falling over each other on who to blame for this failure to act to the imminent threat. This did not, however, stop some deviously clever people from using the Innocence of Muslims video, which by that time had been on Youtube for 6+ months without anyone noticing, as a clever ruse to further fan the anti-American flames. Did I mention that all of this happened on the very significant anniversary of 9/11?

The Facebook Riots
On a much smaller scale, on Friday the 21st of September the small Dutch town of Haren came under siege by thousands of youths looking to party, who swarmed the town after one girl accidentally published an invitation to her Sweet Sixteen birthday party on Facebook to the entire world. Resulting in what is now referred to in the Netherlands as the “Facebook Riots”, a few ´friends´ of the girl decided it would be fun to relive the movie Project X and started spreading the word. Things escalated and swiftly got out of hand, requiring the riot police to act. When the smoke cleared the following morning it became clear that the rioting youths had caused damages of several million euro´s. Ever since this phenomenon took hold, attempts at recreating the carnage (Dutch link) have been springing up all over the country (Dutch link), keeping local government and police on their toes.

Tallinn´s Bronze Night
Let’s go back to Estonia in 2007: The local government in Tallinn relocates an elaborate Soviet-era grave marker of a Bronze Soldier, as well as some war graves, to a more out of the way location. What followed was two solid days of rioting (now referred to as Bronze Night or the April Unrest) and, better known in cyber security circles, the massive cyber-attacks against the Estonian parliament, banks, ministries, newspapers and broadcasters. While no real proof has been found to directly implicate the Kremlin in backing the riots or the cyber-attacks, it has since been believed to be true regardless and on March 10th 2009 a commissar of the Kremlin-backed youth group Nashi claimed responsibility.

The Innocence of Muslims riots, the Haren Facebook Riots and the April Unrest disconcertingly share a common factor: All three were incited and coordinated through the internet. The only real difference is the level of sophistication: Tallinn´s Bronze Night was more or less coordinated through various internet fora and both the Innocence of Muslims riots and the Haren Facebook riots were incited, spread and coordinated through Social Media sites Youtube, Facebook and Twitter.

The reason that I now write this piece is because I fear that this level of social manipulation can be readily adopted by foreign powers to foment troubles well outside of their own national borders. In the case of the April Unrest in Tallinn, the rioting and the cyber-attacks were all done through allegedly Kremlin-owned “assets” such as Nashi. Of course I can offer no empirical evidence to validate my fear, but I would argue that the other two cases prove you don´t need such assets to get the same results. Especially the Haren case shows that massive local damage can be done through exploiting the set of social phenomena that Social Media create and that we have barely begun to discover. It seems to me that it is only a matter of time before these social phenomena are actively exploited by those groups that are specifically suited and knowledgeable in these tactics such as Anonymous or 4Chan.

To me, indeed these phenomena feel like a weapon custom made for them. Think of it as a gross escalation of Swatting and you will understand why governments need to get a grip on this before it undermines their authority. If done right, I have no doubt that successfully re-creating the Haren case is almost as easy and almost as swiftly arranged. And these are just the groups that generally only have mischief on their mind. Can you imagine the damage that can be done this way by someone with truly malicious intentions and absolutely none of its own assets at risk? Some creative type with a long exposure to really unconventional warfare getting his cues from a government with a score to settle, and deep pockets to fund the whole thing? It’s a scary thought. If used properly, Social Media might very well be the most refined weapon for asymmetric warfare to date.