“The servers are down!"
In many newsrooms, this might be a sentence you’d associate with small budgets and dodgy IT equipment. But in a growing number of cases, it’s a symptom of a much more serious threat against news organisations – cyber attacks.
In a speech to be delivered today, BBC director general Mark Thompson is due to address the issue of cyber attacks on the British broadcaster following a campaign of intimidation from Iran.
In extracts of Thompson’s speech, which have been released in advance by the BBC, he describes "a day recently when there was a simultaneous attempt to jam two different satellite feeds of BBC Persian into Iran, to disrupt the Service's London phone-lines by the use of multiple automatic calls, and a sophisticated cyber-attack on the BBC."
Although Thompson stops just short of directly accusing Iranian authorities of perpetrating the attack, he calls the circumstances "self-evidently suspicious".
Current cyber attacks against the BBC are consistent with the campaign of harassment against staff working for the BBC Persian service, which Thompson described in a blog post last month. Tactics used by Iranian authorities include arresting members of BBC journalists’ families, confiscating their passports and hacking Facebook and email accounts. Thompson also complained of the “repeated jamming of international TV stations such as BBC Persian TV, preventing the Iranian people from accessing a vital source of free information.”
A Reporters Without Borders (RSF) report released earlier this week highlights that this sort of cyber attack is by no means a one-off. “Governments are often behind attempts to hack news websites or independent sites,” states the dossier on "Enemies of the Internet", which lists Eritrea, Sri Lanka and Belarus among the many countries where such attacks have taken place.
The report also links to an earlier RSF article about cyber attacks against media in Russia during parliamentary elections at the end of 2011. RSF writes that in the run-up to the elections on Decemeber 4th, the website of the radio station Echo of Moscow, independent daily Kommersant, general news site Gazeta.ru and independent magazine Dosh were among those who suffered Direct Denial of Sevice (DDoS) attacks, alongside a number of other news sites, opposition sites and anti-government blog hosts.
As the RSF report makes clear, cyber attacks on news sites are part of a wider set of serious threats to freedom of expression online. However, they aren’t just used by governments to attack news organisations. RSF notes that last year saw the “rise of groups of hacker[s] such as Anonymous, which were behind cyber attacks on the Tunisian, Egyptian and Syrian governments’ websites.”
“Hacktivist” groups have both worked with and attacked news organisations in the past. Last year, a group called The Script Kiddies, which aligns itself with Anonymous, hacked the Twitter feeds both of Fox News and CNN. On the first occasion it spread false claims that President Obama had been assassinated and on the second it created a false rumour that a hijacked plane had hit the World Trade Center site in New York.
But hacktivism can also fuel journalism: at the end of last month Anonymous collaborated with WikiLeaks, which released a massive trove of emails from the private intelligence company Stratfor. As WikiLeaks announced the release of the documents, it explained that it would be entering into a partnership with over 25 media organisations to inform to public about the information that the emails contained.
With the rise of digital technology, there is every reason to believe that cyber attacks will become more widespread. And while we may not always know the motives and identity of the groups who perpetrate them, there’s little doubt that their escalation will have a serious effect on the journalism industry.