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Understanding cyber attacks

Nurdianah Md Nur | Nov. 6, 2013
Vic Mankotia of CA Technologies explains how DDoS differs from website defacement. He also provides cyber security tips for consumers and organisations.

Last week has been a busy week for several IT security personnel in Singapore. On Friday (1 November 2013), the hacker who goes by the moniker 'The Messiah' defaced a Straits Times blog. The hacker also claimed that members of activist group Anonymous have worked together to cause temporary outage to websites belonging to the Singapore government last Saturday (2 November 2013). However, according to the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), the outage had occurred due to a technical glitch, and not because the websites were hacked into.

Vic Mankotia, vice president of solution strategy for Asia Pacific & Japan at CA Technologies, explains how such cyber attacks occur, and provides tips for consumers and organisations to protect themselves from cyber threats.

How can websites be defaced?
Let's begin by looking at the differences between DDOS and website defacements. DDOS or Distributed Denial-of-Service attacks are attempts to make a machine or Internet resource unavailable to its intended users. Although the means to carry out such attacks, including the motives and targets may vary, the activities involved generally include objectives to interrupt or suspend services, whether temporarily or for an unspecified amount of time, that are being offered from an Internet-based service such as a website or a web application.

Website defacements generally involve changing the elements, usually visual elements of a website or a web page. To do so, one will need to break into the web server that is hosting the website or web page, and replace certain components such as pictures, text or media, into something of their own. In some cases we have seen, entire websites had also been replaced. Defacements in the past have often been compared to some form of digital graffiti where the intent has been to spread a message or prove a point, which is typically quite common when the acts are fuelled by political motivations.

We cannot comment at this point whether the recent spate of attacks have been intended to or might lead to exploiting our public service electronic services for criminal or monetary gains as up till now, most of the attacks seem to be more in line with spreading a message of discontent and threats. However, we cannot rule out that the motivations behind the attacks might change.

Public Service electronic services such as Singapore's myCPF are highly regulated and have the strong security controls in place that are designed to prevent sensitive data from being compromised, similar to an Internet banking system. The relevant IT departments must continue to maintain the highest level of diligence in being proactive against these attack attempts.

Are such acts caused by an individual or a larger group?
Any attack must be taken seriously and even more so if it was a deliberate, targeted attempt. While it is not impossible to conduct widespread electronic attacks against one's underlying communications infrastructure, in fact some countries consider this as a tool in their arsenal in waging cyber war. The sheer amount of effort, complexity and coordination required to do so means it is most likely not achievable by one individual.


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