The internet shutdown
Millions of people all over the world woke up on Oct. 21 to a direct threat to their lifestyles and work. When they tried to go through their social media accounts first thing in the morning, as most of us do nowadays, they could not manage to connect, as the U.S.-based company Dyn, which provides Domain Name System (DNS) services for major websites, was under a Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attack.
In layman’s terms, a massive cyber-attack occurred through generating malicious internet traffic toward Dyn in order to block or slow down its access to its servers. The servers could not handle the massive flood of data and eventually shut down.
In such attacks, it is very difficult to find out where the attacks originate from and who is behind them, as every globally internet-connected device - such as PCs, routers, printers, webcams and even baby monitors - can be hacked and used to create the necessary internet traffic to shut down the servers. The system would be incapacitated temporarily or permanently, depending on the ability of the company to recover from the attack.
The latest attacks, amid allegations directed against Russia, resulted in a massive internet outage, starting from the east coast of the U.S. and spreading to Europe. It affected several important websites, social networking platforms, and money transfer services. The attackers flooded servers with massive internet traffic from millions of internet addresses using hundreds of thousands of devices all over the world that were hacked by a malicious code beforehand. All targeted popular online services - including Twitter, PayPal, Spotify, Reddit, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times - were quickly rendered inaccessible across the U.S. and Europe.
Kyle York, the Chief Strategy Officer of Dyn, announced later that the first attacks began in the early morning and were followed by a second wave before noon, causing massive disruptions. The third wave of attacks was mitigated by the company without having any impact on customers.
Although U.S. Homeland Security and the FBI have immediately started an investigation into the largest cyber-attack ever seen, they have not yet been able to determine who was behind it or why such an attack was launched. No one has claimed responsibility either. But many cyber security experts speculate that someone was trying to learn the capacity of the core systems of infrastructure companies, and possibly how to crash the whole internet with such an attack.
While the motivation behind the attacks or the attacker(s) is still a mystery, the scale of the attacks once more highlighted the risks to national and international security emanating from cyberspace. Until the latest incident, the most well-known cyber-attacks were Russian assaults against Estonia in 2007, Georgia in 2008, and Ukraine in 2014. It is also believed that the U.S. cooperated with Israel to slow down Iranian nuclear development at the Natanz nuclear facility in 2010 with a malicious worm, called Stuxnet. More recently, it was reported that the U.S. employs hackers to disrupt communications of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
We now know that, with increasing cyber power, states have started using cyberspace - be it through surveillance activities against foreign leaders or cyber-attacks – in order to extend their national interests to an international level. As the usage of cyberspace increases, the possibilities of its benefits to human development grow exponentially. But the capabilities of potential attackers are also evolving and surpassing the abilities of states to keep up with the emerging challenges in this unmapped territory. Clearly we need to find a way to cooperate globally to regulate this new domain for national and international security before it’s too late.