‘Iranian Cyber Army’ hack of Twitter signals cyber-politics era

Activists of all political stripes are expected to more aggressively pursue their ideological adversaries by any means necessary in cyberspace. On Thursday, Twitter was attacked for a second time, with an unknown group called the Iranian Cyber Army claiming the strike.

Koji Sasahara/AP
Military security experts say cyberattacks on Twitter and other social networking sites portend a new kind of warfare in which financial institutions, electrical grids, and computer networks could be targeted.

Politics online is becoming just as volatile as politics on the street. Just take Twitter. On Thursday night it was attacked for a second time, supposedly by politically motivated hackers with an ax to grind over how the popular mini-blogging site has evolved into a useful tool for activists.

An unknown group called the Iranian Cyber Army claimed the latest strike. It successfully redirected Twitter traffic to a website that contained an anti-American message. The group has also claimed attacks on the website belonging to several Iranian opposition groups.

In August, Twitter was hit in a cyberattack that also took aim at Facebook and Google. The target of that strike was believed to be a Georgian blogger and popular online critic of the Kremlin for its actions in the 2008 war with Georgia.

“This is just politics of the future,” says James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “This is better than spray paint but it’s roughly in the same family.”

Web becomes forum for political speech

As the Web emerges as the primary forum for political speech, activists of all stripes are expected to more aggressively pursue their ideological adversaries by any means necessary in cyberspace. They’ll blog, they’ll tweet, and even hack into high-profile sites to broadcast a political message.

Dave Marcus, director of Security and Research and Communications at McAfee, told eWeek that “hacktivism” is the new political norm in cyberspace. ”Activist groups want millions of people across the world to see their message, and this time they did it by architecting a re-direct on Twitter.”

Thursday’s message: the US should quit meddling in Iran.

Mr. Lewis does not think the Iranian government was directly involved in taking out Twitter for about an hour Thursday night. Even though the site has been a useful way for protesters there to mobilize – and the government has taken steps before to block Iranian users from accessing it in Iran – he says the latest attack appears to be a politically motivated move by “amateurs.”

But others do see the hand of the Iranian government in the hack.

“Twitter is a big scalp for the Iranian government, and it allowed them to flex their muscles and inflict damage outside of its own borders and onto those who it blames for much of the country’s internal strife,” wrote Nik Cubrilovic on TechCrunch.com.

In a web war, almost nobody is immune

“By selecting Twitter as a target and taking out high-profile anti-government sites at the same time, the Iranian government is being as clear as it possibly can that this war will also be fought on the web,” Cubrilovic wrote. “In a web war, Iran has demonstrated that almost nobody is immune, the battlefield is level and it is not afraid to fire the first big shots in full view of the entire world.”

Twitter and other social networking sites based in the US have certainly been a thorn in the side of regimes like the Iranian government. During student protests there earlier this year, the US government asked Twitter executives not to take the site down for scheduled maintenance. They were worried that might interfere with how Twitter was being used to organize demonstrations against the presidential election that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power.

Adam Vincent, a blogger at the Web 2.0 Journal, says that while an attack on Twitter might not seem critical, it’s one of the highest profile online strikes by a politically motivated group. “Whether it is the so-called Iranian Cyber Army or a random group of mischiefs, this illustrates how vulnerable sites are to attack.”

Lewis suspects that if the Iranian government were to execute some kind of cyber attack on the US it would be a much more sophisticated strike.

“Cyberattacks are a big deal and people tend to underestimate that,” he says. Indeed, cyberwar is a growing concern for the US and is a top national security priority for the Obama administration. But, as Lewis points out, real cyber warfare would involve attacks on financial institutions, electrical grids, transportation and computer networks – which would be viewed as an act of real war.


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