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January 29, 2013

[berkman] “LOIC [low-orbit ion cannon] will tear us apart”: The impact of tool desiogn and media portrayals in the success of activist DDOS attacks

Molly Sauter [twitter:oddletters] (from Berkman and the Center for Civic Media at MIT) is giving a lunchtime Berkman talk. She’s going to focus on Operation Payback, the Dec. 2010 action by Anonymous against those financial services that cut off Wikileaks after Wikileaks made available a massive leak of State Dept. cables. Operation Avenge Assange tried to bring down the sites of those services. Molly sees this as an evolution in media activism, expanding on the use of DDOS tactics by groups in the 1990s; [DDOS = distributed denial of service: flooding a site beyond its capacity to respond, and doing so from multiple sites.]

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Molly begins with a simple explanation of DDOS. The flooding can come from a single computer (unlikely), via a volunteer botnet, or botnets that infect other computers; the botnets communicate with a central computer, pounding on the target until it can’t handle the traffic.

Old school activists think of DDOS as a form of censorship, and thus it is not acceptable. For many digitally-enabled activists (e.g., Electronic Disturbance Theater) DDOS is a form of disobedience. For EDT, DDOS is an auxiliary form of activism: “DDOS is something you do when you’re out on the streets so your computer can be at home protesting.” DDOS is sometimes seen as a type of sit-in, although Molly thinks this is inapt. For some, DDOS is a direct form of protest, and in others, it’s an indirect and symbolic action. Anonymous melds these approaches: influence via technology + influence via media + direct action disruption.

Electronic Disturbance Theater [EDT] used Flood Net, a tool that “hurls bits” but that also lets you send a message to show up in the target computer’s error log. Cleverly, if your issue is human rights, the log might read “Human rights is not found on this server.” But, Molly says, these logs are only read by the admin, so it’s really a way for the activist to yell something for the sake of yelling. The EDT restricted targets of Flood Net and set scheduled times. EDT open sourced it in 1999. The language on the Floor Net site is comprehensible only to people who already know about the issues, e.g., Mexican Neo-Liberalism. It is intimidating for those outside of the circle. It is also very tied to a view of activism that ties actions to individuals â?? anonymous individuals, but using Flood Net requires the action of a person.

LOIC — low orbit ion cannon— was developed maybe around 2006, and forked in 2008. By Dec. 2010, versions could run on just about anything — Windows, Mac, on mobiles, within a browser… Molly goes through the differences in the different versions of it. They let you type in a URL, set some options that are set to defaults, and then you press a button. Done! (LOIC is the boss weapon from the game Command & Conquer). The button you press in the abatishchev version is labeled “IMMA CHARGIN MAH LAZER,” a popular meme. It has the same messaging functionality as Flood Net. The default message derives from a 4chan bestiality rape meme that Molly urges us not to google. This version “is focused on the 4chan Anonymous culture set.”

She then compares this to the NewEraCracker version. Very similar. Same “Imma chargin mah lazer” meme, but the rape meme is gone. Instead, it says “u done goofed,” the popular Jessi Slaughter meme. Jessie pissed off Anonymous, so Anonymous sent lots of pizza to her house. Her father posted a defensive video that wasn’t very smart about the Net, which got widely distributed, and which contained the line “you done goofed.” This message is more confrontational than the other version which the recipient would be unlikely to understand at all. This version of LOIC also has a “fucking hive mind mode” that lets you automate the process entirely by plugging it into an IRC server to use volunteer computers [I think].

These tools, especially the second, created a community of activists, especially in hive mind mode. There are many LOIC tutorial videos on YouTube. This reaches out to new people to join, unlike EDT’s use of language that appeals only to those already in the know. Because anyone can use it, it helps Anonymous become a community of trust.

Anonymous has also pushed DDOS as a media manipulation tactic, and used media for recruitment. Molly doesn’t know if it was a conscious decision, but DDOS ended up as a recruitment tactic.

During the four days of Operation Payback, the media coverage was very confused. For example the media weren’t sure that DDOS is illegal. (It is.) Even Gizmodo got wrong how risky DDOS is for the attacker; it wrongly claimed that the target’s log files don’t record the incoming connections during DDOS. Experienced users know to anonymize their packets, but those who came in new and used this easy-to-use tool often did not protect themselves. The Paypal 16 now under indictment were caught because PayPal stored the top 1000 IP addresses. Much of the coverage just quoted Anonymous at length. “Anonymous is a very horizontal org and there’s no press person to talk to,” but, Molly says, there was a “press IRC channel” but the media didn’t know how to use it. Some mainstream articles linked to download sites for LOIC, which may have encouraged people to download it without understanding the legality of using it.

Conclusions: “Operation Payback’s success was due to a confluence of tech, community, and news media factors. Anonymous’ use of DDOS represent an innovation in participant population and tool design. And Anonymous pushes the reframing of DDOS as a tool of media manipulation and biographical impact [how the participants think about themselves], not direct action.”


Q: Is the paypal list public?

A: Nope.

Q: Can you bring your research up to date?

A: I’m writing my thesis now. So, no.

Q: How does being identified play into the historical mindset?

A: I got into this topic because I wanted to do my thesis on activism and anonymity. Anonymous challenges the assumption that if you’re anonymous, you’re not serious about your activism. The cultural preference for identified activism comes from the 1960s civil disobedience movement, which in turns comes from Thoreau: you break the law and accept punishment for it. But that privileges those who won’t lose their house and their family if arrested. This puts activism on the shoulders of a particular class. Anonymous disagrees. It says you can engage in civil disobedience without personal consequence.

Q: The Federalist Papers were anonymous because it implicitly was saying that the ideas are important enough not to need names attached. Anonymous not only escapes punishment, it makes it effortless â?? the amount of effort you put in is indistinguishable from that of someone whose computer was infected by a bot.

A: This is the slacktivism argument. Slacktivism challenges the expectations about what activism does. One version says you’re supposed to change something or have a solution. But slacktivism (or clicktivism) is valuable for the biographical impact.

A: Studies have looked into whether eating organic food affects your self image so that you do more, or that you merely congratulate yourself.

A: The ladder of engagement says that the big step is getting on the first rung. My view of slacktivism is that it’s widened that run. Pressing the LOIC button gets people started, and I’m in favor of people starting somewhere, when it is in a considered and useful way.

Q: How about The Jester?

A: He’s an Army veteran who explicitly aligns his morals with pro-US, anti-jihadist, anti-Anonymous DDOS. He claims to be working by himself. I don’t think his actions are ethical because they’re about silencing content. [Molly tells us that she has a presentation on DDOS ethics.]

Q: Why is “fuckng hive mind mode” a community? People are donating bandwidth. But the manual mode, where people actively decide to participate in something, is much more like people being in a community. The participants in FHHM don’t necessarily view themselves as joining in a community, although the federal govt is claiming that they are.

A: I agree. My point with FHHM was that it opens up ways of accessing that community in ways that were not possible before.

Q: LOIC is hosted at github and sourceforge, and tutorials at YouTube. Any attempts to remove?

A: LOIC and tools like it are listed as “stress-testing” tools. And it can be used that way if you aim it at your own server. It’s like a head shop selling a pipe for tobacco. During the four days of the operation, Twitter did try to shut down the Anonymous twitter account.

Q: You seem to be saying that Anonymous is becoming more respectful, shifting out of the “otherized” world of 4chan. Is there quantitative data supporting this?

A: Biella Coleman has done the most research on this. That’s where I’ve gotten my data.

Q: How many people participated?

A: It’s been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times.

Q: When an org provides a press contact, a journalist can always orient around that, bounce off of it. But Anonymous doesn’t work that way. How does Anonymous’ play affect coverage?

A: The media doesn’t know how to deal with orgs like Anon and Occupy. They just speak with random people, none of who speak for the org (because no one does). The opening of the press IRC channel was great, for those who found it. It let the press engage at length. But Anon is usefully weird, and thus hard for the media.

Q: [me] So, will LOIC tear us apart? Civil disobedients accept consequences in part to raise the bar so that people don’t too easily break the law. LOIC lowers that bar. If Anon were attacking services that you like, would you be as sanguine?

LOIC isn’t much used now because it’s dangerous, and there are new tools. It’s hard to take down a site.

Q: As the tools get better?

A: Permanent arms race.

Q: Arrest of Sabu?

A: It won’t kill Anonymous.

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January 25, 2011

[berkman] Distributed Denial of Service Attacks against Human Rights Sites

Hal Roberts, Ethan Zuckerman [twitter:ethanz] , and Jillian York [twitter:jilliancyork] are doing a Berkman lunchtime talk on Distributed Denial of Service [DDoS] Attacks against Human Rights Sites, reporting on a paper they’ve posted.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

A DDoS is an attack that consumes the resources of the target machine so that that machine is not able to respond, Hal says. It is an old problem: there was a CERT Advisory about an IP spoofing attack in 1996. A distributed DoS attack uses lots of machines to attack the host, typically via botnets (armies of infected machines). Hal gives an example in which infected machines check Twitter once a minute looking for encoded commands to do nefarious tasks. Gambling sites have often been targets, in part because they are reluctant to report attacks; they’ve also been known to attack each other. In one case, this resulted in the Net going down for 9 hours for most of China. Hal points out that botnets are not the only way DDoS attacks are carried out. In addition, there have been political uses. Botnets have been used to spy as well as bring down sites.

One monitor (Arbor Networks) notes 5-1500 DDoS attacks per day, globally. Hal thinks this number is too low, in part because there are many small attacks.

An application attack “crashes the box.” E.g., a slowloris attack slows down the host’s response time, reducing the number of available TCP connections. App attacks can be clever. E.g., simply reloading a homepage draws upon cached data, but doing searches on random words can be much more effective.

A network attack “clogs the pipe.” It floods the target with as much traffic as it can. This often will take down all the sites hosted by the ISP, not just the target site. The powerful network attacks are almost all “amplification” attacks. E.g., you request a big chunk of data: a little data in requests a massive amount of data back.

To defend against DDoS, you can optimize your server and harden it; you can build in over capacity; you can create a system that adds more resources as required; you can do packet filtering or rate limitation; you can scrub the attacking packets by “outsourcing” them to highly experience sys admins who look for signs in the packets that distinguish good from bad; if flooded, you can do source mitigation, asking routers routing the flood to you to block the packets; or, you can tell your ISP to dynamically reroute the packets. But, none of these technique work well enough or are too expensive.

The study by Hal, Ethan, Jillian, et al., asked a few key questions about how this affects human rights sites: How prevalent are DDoS attacks? What types are used? What’s the impact? How can sites defend against them? To answer these, they aggregated all the media reports, they surved human rights and media organizations. They interviewed respondents. And they hosted a meeting at Harvard. They learned:

  • Attacks are common

  • Sites on the edge of the Net, such as indie media, are particularly vulnerable

  • It’s not just DDoS attacks

  • There are some good answers for application attacks, but fewer for network attacks

  • Network attacks may provoke a move to the core

  • It helps to connect local geeks with core sysadmins

In their media research, they found lots of attacks, but not a strong correlation between the attacks and the politics of the attacked sites. The data are hampered, however, by the difficulty of gathering the info. Not all sites know they’ve been DDoS’ed. And the study had to use large boolean queries to try to find coverage in the media.

Even though there are many attacks, the core (Tier 1 providers, plus their direct customers) does well against DDoS attacks. Those Tier 1 sysadmins work closely together. But, as you get out further from the center — a customer of a customer of a customer of a Tier 1 operator — people have little recourse. “Being at the edge in terms of DDoS is a really bad thing,” says Ethan. The core has dedicated staff and a ton of bandwidth. They typically respond to a DDoS within an hour, and probably within 15 mins. So, if you’re Google, it’s not that much of a problem for you.

But, if you’re a small human rights site, it’s much harder to defend yourself. E.g., Viet Tan has been attacked repeatedly, probably by the Vietnamese government. Worse, they’re not just being DDoS’ed. 72% of those who said they’ve been DDoS’ed are filtered by their governments. 62% have experience ddos attacks. 39% have had an intrusion. 32% have been defaced. Viet Tan was being attacked not just by a botnet, but by the Vietnamese around the world by people who had downloaded a keyboard driver that logged keystrokes and could issue attacks. The people attacking them were the people they were trying to reach. “It’s an incredibly sophisticated way of doing things,” says Ethan.

Arbor Networks says 45% are flood-based, and 26% are app based. Hal et al. sent Arbor the list of attacks his research had uncovered, but Arbor had only known of a small percentage of them, which is some small evidence that Arbor is under-reported.

Of the sites that eperience a DDoS attack last year, 56% had their sites shut down by their ISP, while 36% report that their ISPs successfully defended them. E.g., there was an attack on the Burmese dissident site, This knocked not just that site out, but all of Thailand. Thailand has its own national ISP, which is Tier 2 or 3; a 1gb/sec attack will take down an ISP of that size. Irrawaddy moved ISPs, got hit with a 4gb attack and could not afford to pay for the additional bandwidth.

Hal points to the consolidation of content through fewer and fewer ASNs. In 2007, thousands of ASN’s cotribted 50% of content. In 2009, 150 ASNs contributed 50% of all Net traffic. This may be in part due to the rise of high def video (coming through a few providers), but there’s also fewer on the long tail providing content (e.g., using gmail instead of your own mail server, blogging on a cloud service, etc.). Small sites, not in the core, are at risk.

Should you build dedicated hosting services for human rights sites? That puts all your most at-risk sites in one pool. How do you figure the risk and thus the price? One free host for human rights sites does it for free because they’re a research group and want to watch the DDoS attacks.

The paper Hal et al wrote suggests that human rights sites move into the cloud. E.g., Google’s Blogger offers world class DDoS protection. But, this would mean exchanging the control of the DDoS attackers for the control of proprietary companies that might decide to shut them down. E.g., WikiLeaks moved onto Amazon’s cloud services, and then Amazon caved to Joe Lieberman and shut WikiLeaks down. The right lesson is that whenever you let someone else host your content, you are subject to intermediary censorship. It is an Internet architecture problem. We can respond to it architecturally — e.g., serve off of peer-to-peer networks — or form a consumer movement to demand non-censorship by hosts.

(The attacks by Anonymous were successful mainly against marketing sites. They don’t work against large sites.)


  • Plan ahead

  • Minimize dynamic pages

  • Have robust monitoring, mirroring, and failover

  • Strongly consider hosting on blogger or something similar

  • Do not use the cheapest hosting provider or dns registrar

Bigger picture recommendations: In the most successful communities, there is an identifiable, embedded, technical experts who can get on the phone to highly-connected core systems. Many of these core entities — Yahoo, Google, etc. — want to help but don’t know how. In the meantime, more will move to cloud hosting, which means there’s a need for a policy, public pressure approach to ensure private companies do the right thing.

Q: Shaming as a technique?
A: We need to do this. But it doesn’t work if you’re, say, a large social media service with 500M users. Human rights orgs are a tin percentage of their users. They tend to make the easy decisions for them, and they’re not very transparent. (Tunisia may turn out to be turning point for Facebook, in part because FB was under attack there, and because it was heavily used by Tunisians.)

Q: Public hosting by the government for human rights groups?
A: Three worries. 1. It’s hard to imagine the intermediary censorship being less aggressive than from commercial companies. 2. It’d be a honeypot for attacks. 3. I’m not sure the US govt has the best geeks. Also, there’s a scaling problem. Akamai carries 2TB/sec of legit traffic. It can absorb an attack But the US would have to create a service that can handle 200gb/sec, which would be very expensive.

Q: What sort of tech expertise do you need to mount an attack?
A: The malware market is highly diversified and commodified. Almost all the botnets are mercenary. Some are hosted by countries that in exchange ask the botnets be turned on enemies now and then.

Q: Denial of payment?
A: We have a case in the study called “denial of service by bureaucracy.” E.g., a domain name was hijacked, and it took 6 wks to resolve. A denial of service attack doesn’t have to attack the server software.

Q: Can botnets be reverse engineered?
A: Yes. Arbor Net listens to the traffic to and from infected computers.
A: You either have to shift the responsibility to the PCs, or put it on the ISP. Some say it’s crazy that ISPs do nothing about subscribers whose computers are running continuously, etc.

[Fabulous presentation: Amazing compression of difficult material into a 1.5 hour totally understandable package. Go to the Berkman site to get the webcast when it’s ready.]

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December 20, 2010

Effect of DDoS on human rights

Ethan Zuckerman has an excellent post about the new Berkman report on the use of Distributed Denial of Service attacks to silence human rights groups

Here’s an abbreviation of Ethan’s summary of the “take-aways”:

  • DDoS is a pretty common form of attack against human rights and independent media sites, and the volume of attacks does not appear to be slowing.

  • DDoS doesn’t usually affect independent media and human rights organizations in isolation.

  • Attacks don’t need massive amounts of bandwidth to adversely affect sites.

  • For many organizations, DDoS can be a crippling attack, making sites inaccessible for long periods of time..

  • We see no silver bullets for the independent media and human rights community.

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