In response and solidarity with numerous efforts that have sprung up to help with communications, coordination and outreach during the COVID-19 epidemic, eQualitie is offering Deflect website security and content delivery services for free until the end of 2020 to organizations and individuals working to help others during this difficult time. This includes:
Availability: as demand for your content grows, our worldwide infrastructure will ensure that your website remains accessible and fast
Security: protecting your website from malicious bots and hackers
Hosting: for existing or new WordPress sites
Aanalytics: view real-time statistics in the Deflect dashboard
It takes 15 minutes to set up and we’ll have you protected on the same day. Our support team can help you in English, French, Chinese, Spanish and Russian. If you have any questions please contact us.
The attacks leading to the publication of this report quickly stood out from the daily onslaught of malicious traffic on Deflect, at first because they were using professional vulnerability scanning tools like Acunetix. The moment we discovered that the origin server of these scans was also hosting fake gmail domains, it became evident that something bigger was going on here. In this report, we describe all the pieces put together about this campaign, with the hope to contribute to public knowledge about the methods and impact of such attacks against civil society.
Context : Human Rights and Surveillance in Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan is defined by many human-rights organizations as an authoritarian state, that has known strong repression of civil society. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, two presidents have presided over a system that institutionalized torture and repressed freedom of expression, as documented over the years by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Front Line Defenders, among many others. Repression extended to media and human rights activists in particular, many of whom had to leave the country and continue their work in diaspora.
Uzbekistan was one of the first to establish a pervasive Internet censorship infrastructure, blocking access to media and human rights websites. Hacking Team servers in Uzbekistan were identified as early as 2014 by the Citizen Lab. It was later confirmed that Uzbek National Security Service (SNB) were among the customers of Hacking Team solutions from leaked Hacking Team emails. A Privacy International report from 2015 describes the installation in Uzbekistan of several monitoring centers with mass surveillance capabilities provided by the Israeli branch of the US-based company Verint Systems and by the Israel-based company NICE Systems. A 2007 Amnesty International report entitled ‘We will find you anywhere’ gives more context on the utilisation of these capabilities, describing digital surveillance and targeted attacks against Uzbek journalists and human-right activists. Among other cases, it describes the unfortunate events behind the closure of uznews.net – an independent media website established by Galima Bukharbaeva in 2005 following the Andijan massacre. In 2014, she discovered that her email account had been hacked and information about the organization, including names and personal details journalists in Uzbekistan was published online. Galima is now the editor of Centre1, a Deflect client and one of the targets of this investigation.
A New Phishing and Web Attack Campaign
On the 16th of November 2018, we identified a large attack against several websites protected by Deflect. This attack used several professional security audit tools like NetSparker and WPScan to scan the websites eltuz.com and centre1.com.
Peak of traffic during the attack (16th of November 2018)
This attack was coming from the IP address 220.127.116.11 (AS12876 – Online AS but an IP range dedicated to Scaleway servers). By looking at older traffic from this same IP address, we found several cases of attacks on other Deflect protected websites, but we also found domains mimicking google and gmail domains hosted on this IP address, like auth.login.google.email-service[.]host or auth.login.googlemail.com.mail-auth[.]top. We looked into passive DNS databases (using the PassiveTotal Community Edition and other tools like RobTex) and crossed that information with attacks seen on Deflect protected websites with logging enabled. We uncovered a large campaign combining web and phishing attacks against media and activists. We found the first evidence of activity from this group in February 2016, and the first evidence of attacks in December 2017.
The list of Deflect protected websites chosen by this campaign, may give some context to the motivation behind them. Four websites were targeted:
Fergana News is a leading independent Russian & Uzbek language news website covering Central Asian countries
Three of these targets are prominent media focusing on Uzbekistan. We have been in contact with their editors and several other Uzbek activists to see if they had received phishing emails as part of this campaign. Some of them were able to confirm receiving such messages and forwarded them to us. Reaching out further afield we were able to get confirmations of phishing attacks from other prominent Uzbek activists who were not linked websites protected by Deflect.
Palestine Chronicle seems to be an outlier in this group of media websites focusing on Uzbekistan. We don’t have a clear hypothesis about why this website was targeted.
A year of web attacks against civil society
Through passive DNS, we identified three IPs used by the attackers in this operation :
18.104.22.168 was used in 2016 and 2017 (timeline is not clear, Istanbul DC, AS197328)
22.214.171.124 was used between October 2017 and August 2018 (HostKey, AS395839)
126.96.36.199 was used between September 2018 and February 2019 (Scaleway, AS12876)
We have identified 15 attacks from the IPs 188.8.131.52 and 184.108.40.206 since December 2017 on Deflect protected websites:
www.palestinechronicle.com eltuz.com www.fergana.info and uzbek.fergananews.com
Acunetix and WebCruiser
NetSparker and Acunetix
eltuz.com, www.fergananews.com and news.fergananews.com
eltuz.com, centre1.com and en.eltuz.com
NetSparker and WPScan
fergana.info www.fergana.info and fergana.agency
eltuz.com and en.eltuz.com
Besides classic open-source tools like WPScan, these attacks show the utilization of a wide range of commercial security audit tools, like NetSparker or Acunetix. Acunetix offers a trial version that may have been used here, NetSparker does not, showing that the operators may have a consistent budget (standard offer is $4995 / year, a cracked version may have been used).
It is also surprising to see so many different tools coming from a single server, as many of them require a Graphical User Interface. When we scanned the IP 220.127.116.11, we discovered that it hosted a Squid proxy on port 3128, we think that this proxy was used to relay traffic from the origin operator computer.
Extract of nmap scan of 18.104.22.168 in December 2018 :
3128/tcp open http-proxy Squid http proxy 3.5.23
|_http-title: ERROR: The requested URL could not be retrieved
A large phishing campaign
After discovering a long list of domains made to resemble popular email providers, we suspected that the operators were also involved in a phishing campaign. We contacted owners of targeted websites, along with several Uzbek human right activists and gathered 14 different phishing emails targeting two activists between March 2018 and February 2019 :
12th of March 2018
У Вас 2 недоставленное сообщение (You have 2 undelivered message)
13th of June 2018
Прекращение предоставления доступа к сервису (Termination of access to the service)
18th of June 2018
Ваш новый адрес в Gmail: firstname.lastname@example.org (Your new email address in Gmail: email@example.com)
10th of July 2018
Прекращение предоставления доступа к сервису (Termination of access to the service)
10th of July 2018
Прекращение предоставления доступа к сервису (Termination of access to the service)
Almost all these emails were mimicking Gmail alerts to entice the user to click on the link. For instance this email received on the 23rd of October 2018 pretends that the account will be closed soon, using images of the text hosted on imgur to bypass Gmail detection :
The only exception was an email received on the 16th of October 2018 pretending to give confidential information on the former Hokim (governor) of Tashkent :
Emails were using simple tricks to bypass detection, at times drw.sh url shortener (this tool belongs to a Russian security company Doctor Web) or by using open re-directions offered in several Google tools.
Every email we have seen used a different sub-domain, including emails from the same Gmail account and with the same subject line. For instance, two different emails entitled “Прекращение предоставления доступа к сервису” and sent from the same address used hxxp://gmallls.con-537d7.my-id[.]top/ and http://gmallls.con-4f137.my-id[.]top/ as phishing domains. We think that the operators used a different sub-domain for every email sent in order to bypass Gmail list of known malicious domains. This would explain the large number of sub-domains identified through passive DNS. We have identified 74 sub-domains for 26 second-level domains used in this campaign (see the appendix below for full list of discovered domains).
We think that the phishing page stayed online only for a short time after having sent the email in order to avoid detection. We got access to the phishing page of a few emails. We could confirm that the phishing toolkit checked if the password is correct or not (against the actual gmail account) and suspect that they implemented 2 Factor authentication for text messages and 2FA applications, but could not confirm this.
Timeline for the campaign
We found the first evidence of activity in this operation with the registration of domain auth-login[.]com on the 21st of February 2016. Because we discovered the campaign recently, we have little information on attacks during 2016 and 2017, but the domain registration date shows some activity in July and December 2016, and then again in August and October 2017. It is very likely that the campaign started in 2016 and continued in 2017 without any public reporting about it.
Here is a first timeline we obtained based on domain registration dates and dates of web attacks and phishing emails :
To confirm that this group had some activity during 2016 and 2017, we gathered encryption (TLS) certificates for these domains and sub-domains from the crt.sh Certificate Transparency Database. We identified 230 certificates generated for these domains, most of them created by Cloudfare. Here is a new timeline integrating the creation of TLS certificates :
We see here many certificates created since December 2016 and continuing over 2017, which shows that this group had some activity during that time. The large number of certificates over 2017 and 2018 comes from campaign operators using Cloudflare for several domains. Cloudflare creates several short-lived certificates at the same time when protecting a website.
It is also interesting to note that the campaign started in February 2016, with some activity in the summer of 2016, which happens to when the former Uzbek president Islam Karimov died, news first reported by Fergana News, one of the targets of this attack campaign.
We identified domains and subdomains of this campaign through analysis of passive DNS information, using mostly the Community access of PassiveTotal. Many domains in 2016/2017 reused the same registrant email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, which helped us identify other domains related to this campaign :
Based on this list, we identified subdomains and IP addresses associated with them, and discovered three IP addresses used in the operation. We used Shodan historical data and dates of passive DNS data to estimate the timeline of the utilisation of the different servers :
22.214.171.124 was used in 2016 and 2017
126.96.36.199 was used between October 2017 and August 2018
188.8.131.52 was used between September and February 2019
We have identified 74 sub-domains for 26 second-level domains used in this campaign (see the appendix for a full list of IOCs). Most of these domains are mimicking Gmail, but there are also domains mimicking Yandex (auth.yandex.ru.my-id[.]top), mail.ru (mail.ru.my-id[.]top) qip.ru (account.qip.ru.mail-help-support[.]info), yahoo (auth.yahoo.com.mail-help-support[.]info), Live (login.live.com.mail-help-support[.]info) or rambler.ru (mail.rambler.ru.mail-help-support[.]info). Most of these domains are sub-domains of a few generic second-level domains (like auth-mail.com), but there are a few specific second-level domains that are interesting :
We have not found any information on vzlom[.]top and fixerman[.]top. Vzlom means “break into” in Russian, so it could have hosted or mimicked a security website
A weird Cyber-criminality Nexus
It is quite unusual to see connections between targeted attacks and cyber-criminal enterprises, however during this investigation we encountered two such links.
The first one is with the domain msoffice365[.]win which was registered by email@example.com (as well as many other domains from this campaign) on the 7th of December 2016. This domain was identified as a C2 server for a cryptocurrency theft tool called Quant, as described in this Forcepoint report released in December 2017. Virus Total confirms that this domain hosted several samples of this malware in November 2017 (it was registered for a year). We have not seen any malicious activity from this domain related to our campaign, but as explained earlier, we have marginal access to the group’s activity in 2017.
The second link we have found is between the domain auth-login[.]com and the groups behind the Bedep trojan and the Angler exploit kit. auth-login[.]com was linked to this operation through the subdomain login.yandex.ru.auth-login[.]com that fit the pattern of long subdomains mimicking Yandex from this campaign and it was hosted on the same IP address 184.108.40.206 in March and April 2016 according to RiskIQ. This domain was registered in February 2016 by firstname.lastname@example.org (David Bowers from Grovetown, GA in the US according to whois information). This email address was also used to register hundreds of domains used in a Bedep campaign as described by Talos in February 2016 (and confirmed by severalother reports). Angler exploit kit is one of the most notorious exploit kit, that was commonly used by cyber-criminals between 2013 and 2016. Bedep is a generic backdoor that was identified in 2015, and used almost exclusively with the Angler exploit kit. It should be noted that Trustwave documented the utilization of Bedep in 2015 to increase the number of views of pro-Russian propaganda videos.
Even if we have not seen any utilisation of these two domains in this campaign, these two links seem too strong to be considered cirmcumstantial. These links could show a collaboration between cyber-criminal groups and state-sponsored groups or services. It is interesting to remember the potential involvement of Russian hacking groups in attacks on Uznews.net editor in 2014, as described by Amnesty international.
Taking Down Servers is Hard
When the attack was discovered, we decided to investigate without sending any abuse requests, until a clearer picture of the campaign emerged. In January, we decided that we had enough knowledge of the campaign and started to send abuse requests – for fake Gmail addresses to Google and for the URL shorteners to Doctor Web. We did not receive any answer but noticed that the Doctor Web URLs were taken down a few days after.
Regarding the Scaleway server, we entered into an unexpected loop with their abuse process. Scaleway operates by sending the abuse request directly to the customer and then asks them for confirmation that the issue has been resolved. This process works fine in the case of a compromised server, but does not work when the server was rented intentionally for malicious activities. We did not want to send an abuse request because it would have involved giving away information to the operators. We contacted Scaleway directly and it took some time to find the right person on the security team. They acknowledged the difficulty of having an efficient Abuse Process, and after we sent them an anonymized version of this report along with proof that phishing websites were hosted on the server, they took down the server around the 25th of January 2019.
Being an infrastructure provider, we understand the difficulty of dealing with abuse requests. For a lot of hosting providers, the number of requests is what makes a case urgent or not. We encourage hosting providers to better engage with organisations working to protect Civil Society and establish trust relationships that help quickly mitigate the effects of malicious campaigns.
In this report, we have documented a prolonged phishing and web attack campaign focusing on media covering Uzbekistan and Uzbek human right activists. It shows that once again, digital attacks are a threat for human-right activists and independent media. There are several threat actors known to use both phishing and web attacks combined (like the Vietnam-related group OceanLotus), but this campaign shows a dual strategy targeting civil society websites and their editors at the same time.
We have no evidence of government involvement in this operation, but these attacks are clearly targeted on prominent voices of Uzbek civil society. They also share strong similarities with the hack of Uznews.net in 2014, where the editor’s mailbox was compromised through a phishing email that appeared as a notice from Google warning her that the account had been involved in distributing illegal pornography.
Over the past 10 years, several organisations like the Citizen Lab or Amnesty International have dedicated lots of time and effort to document digital surveillance and targeted attacks against Civil Society. We hope that this report will contribute to these efforts, and show that today, more than ever, we need to continue supporting civil society against digital surveillance and intrusion.
Counter-Measures Against such Attacks
If you think you are targeted by similar campaigns, here is a list of recommendations to protect yourself.
Against phishing attacks, it is important to learn to recognize classic phishing emails. We give some examples in this report, but you can read othersimilar reports by the Citizen Lab. You can also read this nice explanation by NetAlert and practice with this Google Jigsaw quizz. The second important point is to make sure that you have configured 2-Factor Authentication on your email and social media accounts. Two-Factor Authentication means using a second way to authenticate when you log-in besides your password. Common second factors include text messages, temporary password apps or hardware tokens. We recommend using either temporary password apps (like Google Authenticator; FreeOTP) or Hardware Keys (like YubiKeys). Hardware keys are known to be more secure and strongly recommended if you are an at-risk activist or journalist.
Against web attacks, if you are using a CMS like WordPress or Drupal, it is very important to update both the CMS and its plugins very regularly, and avoid using un-maintained plugins (it is very common to have websites compromised because of outdated plugins). Civil society websites are welcome to apply to Deflect for free website protection.
We would like to thank Front Line Defenders and Scaleway for their help. We would also like to thank ipinfo.io and RiskIQ for their tools that helped us in the investigation.
The first attack was by far the largest DDoS attack seen by the Deflect project in 2018, clocking over 7.7 million queries in 4 hours
The three attacks used different types of relays, including open proxies, botnets and WordPress pingbacks. We could not find any technical intersection between the incidents to point to their orchestration or provenance.
Caucasian Knot is an online media covering the Caucasus, comprised of 20 regions from the North and South Caucasus. The publication has eleven thematic areas with a focus on human right issues. Several reporters paid the ultimate price for their journalism, including Akhmednabi Akhmednabiev, killed in Dagestan in 2013. Another young Chechen journalist Zhalaudi Geriev, was kidnapped and tortured in 2016, and is now in Chernokozovo prison. On several occasions, Chechen government officials have publicly called for violence against Caucasian Knot reports and editors.
Caucasian Knot has received several journalism awards, including the The Free Press of Eastern Europe award in 2007 and the Sakharov prize in 2017.
First attack : millions of requests from open proxies on October 19th
The Caucasian Knot website joined Deflect on the 19th of October, under the barrel of a massive DDoS attack that had knocked their servers offline. Deflect logged over 7, 700, 000 queries to / on www.kavkaz-uzel.eu between 11h am and 3pm. This was by far the largest DDoS attack we have seen on Deflect in 2018.
The attack was coming from 351 different IP addresses doing requests to /, adding random HTTP queries to bypass any caching mechanism, with queries like GET /?tone=hot or GET /?act=ring, and often adding random referrers like http://www.google.com/translate?u=trade or http://www.comicgeekspeak.com/proxy.php?url=hot. Most of these IP addresses were open proxies used as relays, like the IP 220.127.116.11 which did more than 112 000 queries – listed as an open proxy on different proxy databases.
Many open-proxies are “transparent”, which mean that they do not add or remove any header, but it is common to have proxies adding a header X-Forwarded-for with the origin IP address. Among the long list of proxies used, several of them actually added this header which revealed the IP addresses at the origin of the attack (an occurrence similar to what we’ve previously documented in Deflect Report #4)
These IPs are servers hosted by a provider called Global Frag, that propose servers with DDoS protection (sic!). We have sent an abuse request to this provider on the 19th of November and the servers were shutdown a few weeks after that (we cannot be sure if it was related to our abuse request). We have not recorded any other malicious traffic from these servers to the Deflect network.
Second attack: botnet attack on November 18th
On this day we identified a second, smaller attack targeting the same website.
The attack queried the / path more than 2 million times, this time without any query string to avoid caching, but the source of the attack is really different. Most of the attacks are coming from a botnet, with 1591positively identified IP addresses (top 10 countries listed here):
57 United States
A small subset of this attack was actually using the WordPress pingback method, generating around 30 000 requests. WordPress pingback attacks are DDoS attacks using WordPress websites with the pingback feature enabled as relay, which allows to generate traffic to the targeted website. A couple of years ago, the WordPress development team updated the user-agent used for pingback to include the IP address of the origin server. In our logs we see two different types of user-agents for the pingback :
User agents before WordPress 3.8.2 having only the WordPress version and the website, like WordPress/3.3.2; http://equalit.ie
User-agents after version 3.8.1 having an extra field giving the IP address at the origin of the query like WordPress/4.9.3; http://[REDACTED]; verifying pingback from 18.104.22.168
By analyzing user-agents of modern WordPress websites, we were able to distinguish the following 10 attack origin IPs:
All these IPs were actually part of a booter service (professional DDoS-for-hire) that also targeted BT’selem and that we described in detail in our Deflect Labs Report #4.
Third attack: WordPress PingBack and Botnets on the 3rd of December
On the 3rd of December around 3pm UTC, we saw a new attack targeting www.kavkaz-uzel.eu, again with requests only to /. On the diagram below we can see two peaks of traffic around 2h20 pm and 3pm when checking only the requests to / at that time :
Looking at the first peak of traffic, we were able to establish another instance of a WordPress Pingback attack with user agents like WordPress/3.3.2; http://[REDACTED] or WordPress/4.1; http://[REDACTED]; verifying pingback from 22.214.171.124. We analyzed the user-agents from this attack and identified 135 different websites used as relays, making a total of 67 000+ requests. Most of these websites were using recent WordPress version, showing the IP as the origin of this attack, 126.96.36.199 a server from king-servers.com. King Server is a Russian Server provider considered by some people to be a bullet-proof provider. Machines from King Servers were also used in the hack of Arizona and Illinois’ state board of elections in 2016. Upon closer inspection, we could not find any other interesting services running on this machine or proof that it was linked to a broader campaign. Among the 135 websites used as relay here, only 25 were also used in the 2nd attack described above, which seems to show that they are coming from an actor with a different list of WordPress relays.
The second peak of traffic was actually coming from a very different source: we identified 252 different IP addresses as the origin of this traffic, mostly coming from home Internet access routers, located in different countries. We think this second peak of traffic was from a small botnet of compromised end-systems. These systems were mostly located in Russia (32), Egypt (20), India (17), Turkey (14) and Thailand (10) as shown in the following map :
In our follow up investigations we could not find a direct technical link to explain attackers’ motivation, however in all cases attacks were launched within a 24-hour window of a publication critical of the Chechen government and when countering its official narratives. We did not find any similar correlation with other thematic or region specific publications on this website, within a 24-hour window between publication and attack.
This is the fifth year of Deflect operations and an opportune time to draw some conclusions from the past and provide a round of feedback to our many users and peers. We fought and won several hundred battles with various distributed denial of service and social engineering attacks against us and our clients, expanding the Deflect offerings of open source mitigation solutions to also include website hosting and attack analytics. However, several important missteps were taken to arrive here and this post will concentrate on lessons learned and the way forward in our battle to reduce to prevalence of DDOS as an all too common technique to silence online voices.
Our reflections and this post were motivated by an external evaluation report of the Distributed Deflect service, which you can read in this PDF. The project itself was a technical long shot and an ambitious community building exercise. Lessons learned from this endeavor are summarized within. Its about a 10 minute read 🙂
During peak times on Deflect throughout 2012-2016 we were serving an average of 3 million unique daily readers and battling with simultaneous DDoS attacks against several clients. The network served websites continuously for the entire 3 1/4 years of project duration, recording less than 30 minutes of down time in total. The project had direct impact on over four hundred independent media, human rights and democracy building organizations.
Over three hundred and fifty websites passed through the Deflect protection service. These websites ranged in size and popularity, receiving anything between a dozen daily readers to over a million. Our open door policy meant that websites who had changed their mind about Deflect protection were free to leave and unhindered in any way from doing so. Over the course of the project, we have mitigated over four hundred DDoS attacks and served approximately 1% of Internet users each calendar year (according to our records correlated against Internet World Statistics). Our work also appeared in topical and mainstream media.
Aside from the DDoS protection service, we trained numerous website administrators in web security principles, worked with several small and medium ISPs to set up their own Deflect infrastructure and enabled Internet presence for key organizations and movements involved in national and international events, including the ’13 election in Iran, ’14 elections in Ukraine, Iguala mass kidnapping, Panama papers, and Black Lives Matter among others.
As attacks grew in size, we debated the long-term existence of the project, deciding to prototype an in-kind DDoS mitigation service, whereby websites receiving free protection and any volunteers could join and expand the mitigation network’s size and scope. We wanted to create a service run by the people it protected. The hypothesis envisioned the world’s first participatory botnet infrastructure, whereby the network would be sustained with around a hundred servers run by the Deflect project and several thousand volunteer nodes. Our past experience showed that the best way to mitigate a botnet attack was with a distributed solution, utilizing the design of the Internet to nullify an attack that any single end point/s could not handle by itself. Distributed Deflect brought together people of various background and competencies, blending software development and technical service provision, customer support and outreach, documentation and communications. We designed, prototyped and brought into production core components of a distributed volunteer infrastructure, only to realize that the hypothesis behind our proposal could not scale if we were to maintain the privacy and security of all participants in our network.
An infrastructure that would accept voluntary (untrusted) network resources had to introduce checks for content accuracy and confidentiality, otherwise a malicious node could not only see who was doing what on the Deflect network but delete or change content as it passed through their machine. Our solution was to encrypt web pages as they left the origin server and deliver them to readers as an encrypted bundle, with an additional authentication snippet being sent by another node for verification. Volunteer nodes would only be caching encrypted information and would not be able to replace it with alternative content.
All necessary infrastructure design and software tools to implement this model were built to specification. However, once ready for production and undergoing testing, we realized the error in hypothesis made at the onset. Encrypted bundles grew in size, as all page fonts and various third-party libraries – that make up the majority of web pages today and are usually stored in the browser’s cache – had to be included in each bundle.
This increased network latency and could not scale during a DDoS attack. We were worsening the performance of our infrastructure instead of improving it. Another important factor driving our deliberation was the low cost of server infrastructure. By renting our machines with commercial providers, and using their competitive pricing to our advantage, we have managed to maintain infrastructure costs below 5% of our overall monthly expenditure. Monetary support for a worldwide infrastructure of Deflect servers was not significant when compared with the resources required to service the network. By concentrating development efforts on encrypting and delivering website content from our distributed cache and performance load balancing on a voluntary node infrastructure, we held back work on improving network management and task automation. This meant that the level of entry to providing technical support for the network was set quite high and excluded the participation of technically minded volunteers protected by Deflect.
After several months of further testing, deliberation and consultation with our funders, we decided to abandon the initiative to include voluntary network resources, in favour of continuing the existing mitigation platform and improving its services for clients. As attack mitigation became routine and Deflect successfully defended its clients from relentless DDoS offensives, the team began to look at the impunity currently enjoyed by those launching the attacks. Beginning with a case of a Vietnamese independent media website targeted by bots originating from a state-regulated and controlled Vietnamese ISP, we understood that a story could be extracted from the forensic trail of an attack, that may contain evidence of motivation, method and provenance. If this story could be told, it would give huge advocacy power to the target and begin to peel away at the anonymity enjoyed by its organizers. The cost for attacking Deflectees would raise as exposure and media attention around the event upended the attackers’ goals.
We began to develop an infrastructure that would capture a statistically relevant segment of an attack. Data analysis was achieved through machine-led technology for profiling and classifying malicious actors on our network, visualization tools for human-led investigation and cooperation with peer organizations for tracing activity in our respective networks. This effort became Deflect Labs and in its first twelve months we published three detailed reports covering a series of incidents targeting websites protected by Deflect, exposing their methodology and profiling their networks. Doing some open source intelligence and in collaboration with website staff, we identified a story in each attack exposing possible motivations and identity of the attackers. Following publication and media attention created by these reports, attacks against one of the websites reduced significantly and ceased altogether for the other one.
Many difficulties and problems could be expected with running a high-impact, 24/7 security service for several million daily readers. Fatigue, lack of time for developing new features, round-the-clock emergency coverage and numerous instances of high-stress situations led to burnout and staff turnover. The resources invested in the Distributed Deflect model set back development considerably for other project ambitions. At around the same time as Deflect was gaining popularity, free mitigation offerings from Cloudflare and Google were introduced in tandem with outreach campaigns targeting independent media and human rights organizations. This led to more options for civil society organizations seeking website protection but made it harder for us to attract the expected number of websites. We started a campaign to define differences in our distinctive approaches to client eligibility, respect for their privacy and clear terms of service, trying a variety of communications and outreach strategies. We were disappointed nonetheless to not have received more support from within our community of peers, as open source solutions and data ownership did not figure highly as criteria for NGOs and media when selecting mitigation options.
… we carry on
Deflect continues to operate and innovate, gradually growing and solidifying. Our ongoing ambitions include offering our clients broader hosting options and coming up with standards and systems for responsible data sharing among like-minded ISPs and mitigation providers. Look out for pleasant graphic user interfaces in our control panels and documentation platforms. We are also prototyping several different approaches to generating revenue in order to sustain the project for the foreseeable future. The goal is to get better without losing track of what we came here to do in the first place. As always, we are here to support our clients’ mission and their right to free expression. We are heartened by their feedback and testimonials.
Last week and throughout the weekend, Deflect helped mitigate several DDoS attack bursts against the official Black Lives Matter website. At current estimates over 12,000 bots pounded the website just over 35 million times in 24 hours. An unusual trait of this attack was the prevalence of malicious connections originating from the US. An in-depth analytic report will follow this prima facie bulletin.
Despite its intensity, the attack has been successfully contained by Deflect, and the Black Lives Matter website is functional and accessible throughout much of the weekend. Black Lives Matter has released an official statement on this incident together with eQualit.ie, Design Action Collective and May First/People Link:
Keeping a website available when attackers are seeking to take it off-line is essential for many reasons. The most obvious is the importance of protecting the fundamental right to human communication. But the specific targeting that characterizes recent DDOS attacks (on networks supporting reproductive rights, Palestinian rights and the rights of people of color) highlights this type of on-line attack as part of the arsenal being used to quash response and social change movements.
DDOS attacks will increase as our protests and organizing increases and so must our movements’ ability to resist them and stay on-line. The collaborative work that spawned the response to this attack is both an example of this protective effort and yet another step in improving it and making it stronger.
Our organizations work in different areas with different programs but we are united in our commitment to vigorously preserving our movements’ right to communicate and defeating all attempts to curtail that right. Without the ability to communicate freely, we can’t organize and, if we can’t organize, our world can never be truly free.
For the last four years, the Deflect DDoS mitigation system has protected independent online voices from the onslaught of cyber-attacks aiming to silence them. We have grown, learning our lessons as we took the punches. One aspect of this work stood out as particularly interesting during this time: there were stories to be told in the sea of data brought on by each attack. Those stories could shine a light in the direction of the provenance of the attacks and the motivations of the actors behind them. Most importantly, it would aid the advocacy efforts of the targeted website and begin to strip away the impunity for launching these attacks, raising their cost in the long run. The more they attack us, the smarter we’ll get.
Deflect Labs is a new effort to collect and study distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks launched against the websites we protect. It is built on a variety of open source tools, utilizing machine learning, time-series anomaly detection and botnet classification tools, many of which have been contributed to or wholly developed by eQualit.ie’s Deflect team. We aim to responsibly share news and our analysis of the attacks in a series of ongoing reports, the first of which is released today.