January 14, 2009

Websites Becoming Propaganda Machine For Gaza Crisis

The Internet has become a major tool for propaganda during the current Israeli and Palestinian conflict in the Gaza Strip.

Computer users are being warned to be on the lookout for phishing emails and webmasters must be extra careful to ensure their servers are secure, as activists have turned to defacing websites, taking over computers, and shutting down Facebook groups.

So far, several U.S. Military sites, NATO and an Israeli Bank have all been targeted.

So-called "hacktivism" -- the hacking of security barriers for political or ideological reasons -- has been increasing as Internet use continues to spread across the world.

Pro-Palestinian hackers defaced several high-profile websites in January, including a U.S. Army website, and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly's website.

The hackers, who are known by the name "Agd_Scorp/Peace Crew," have canvassed web pages with white space and a well-known photograph of a boy throwing stones at an Israeli tank in Gaza, and the Israeli, American and British flags with a red strike through them.

The hackers wrote messages like: "Stop attacks u israel and usa ! you cursed nations ! one day muslims will clean the world from you!"

"The attackers persisted in attempting access for a number of days following the initial attack, but they did not gain access to any of the Assembly's internal servers," said Dwight Griswold, the Nato Parliamentary Assembly's head of IT.

"The fact is that it's always a cat and mouse game. There is no system that is impenetrable."

The domain names of Israeli online news site ynetnews.com and the Israel Discount Bank were hijacked and made to reroute visitors to a page showing anti-Israel messages with images of prisoners being abused in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

A website called www.help-israel-win.com asked visitors to download and install a file that was later determined to be a trojan that could allow for remote access to and control of a computer.

Yoav Keren, chief executive of Domain The Net, noted that the number of attacks has skyrocketed in Israel in the past few months.

He believes it is clearly a result of what's happening in Gaza. "We see it as part of the war."

Hackers have also focused on Israeli Arab and pro-Palestinian sites. Hackers defaced three websites last year, replacing pages with the Israeli flag and the symbol of the banned far-right group Kach.

Meanwhile, on the social networking site Facebook, dozens of groups related to the conflict in Gaza have sprung up.

A group using the logo of the Jewish Internet Defense Force (JIDF) took control of several of these groups, removing content and replacing it with statements supporting Israeli policy and criticizing the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which controls Gaza, and replaced the groups' images with the JIDF logo.

One user, Andrew Silvera, an active member of several pro-Palestinian groups on Facebook, said that his account was hacked after he responded to a Facebook request from another user that invited him to be an administrator of a similar group.

"As soon as I clicked it I realized there was something wrong with the link. It wasn't like a normal Facebook group. As soon as I pressed it, that was it, my account just vanished," he said. "They kidnapped my account."

Facebook said it would not respond to specific alleged incidents, but acknowledged that they were aware of the phishing attacks.

"We have noticed a couple of instances where a page or a group admin has had their account credentials phished. In such cases, we will reset the passwords on the users' accounts and they should have control again.

"We are just a platform and the discussions that are taking place online are also taking place offline," said a Facebook spokesperson, adding that Facebook is "not taking sides" in the matter.

Security professionals have come to expect such hacktivism attacks, according to Professor Peter Sommer, a cybercrime expert at the London School of Economics.

"It's been going on for at least 10 years. It's a very obvious form of making a protest," he said.

He said social networking sites like Facebook are usually secure at a fundamental level, but users must take responsibility for their account's security.

"Unfortunately, security at a personal level is relatively hard work and rather tiresome, but there is no feasible alternative," he added.

Peter Power, of the UK Security Review Commission, said that cyberattacks are commonplace, noting a recent attack aimed at bringing down the whole of the UK's internet infrastructure that was stopped at a late stage.

He said simply redirecting a website to a propaganda message can still create a climate of fear.

"When people penetrate websites - and you see it on your screen - it becomes very personal to you. The fear is"¦'look, if they can do this, what else can they do?'" he said.

He said the UK government is keenly aware of this threat and has set up the CPNI (Center for the Protection of National Infrastructure) to protect the country's essential services.

The NATO Parliamentary Assembly's Dwight Griswold said he is not overly concerned about the messages hackers put on his organization's website.

"My more worrisome threat is if someone breaks in and doesn't leave a big message like that."


Image Caption: Israeli soldiers work on armored personnel carriers at a staging area near the Gaza border, January 12, 2009. (UPI Photo/Debbie Hill)