Twitter.com, NYTimes.com and more taken down in Syrian hack

The SEA strikes through DNS servers.

Hackers took down the New York Times, Twitter and Huffington Post websites overnight through a method known as DNS hijacking. Although the NYT's website is still down this morning, the rest appear to be back up, albeit with continued problems on some subsystems. The Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) hacking collective is obliquely claiming responsibility on Twitter.

The SEA is famous for finding novel entry-points into a company's online presence, and this is no different. Rather than hacking into the companies' servers directly, DNS hijacking allows an attacker to redirect the web address which normally points to the servers on which the site is stored.

Every server on the internet has a unique IP address, a 12-digit code which refers to its virtual location. But in order to avoid having to remember all these numbers, there's a second system which sits on top of IP addresses, which lets us type in the alphanumeric domain names we all know and love. When someone enters nytimes.com into their address bar, the browser looks up the domain name using a Domain Name System (DNS) server; that server then tells your browser what IP address the URL points to, the two computers connect, and everything works happily.

What happened overnight is that the SEA managed to break into the website of Melbourne IT, the company which the New York Times and others used to register those domain names. They then changed the records so that instead of pointing to the New York Times' website, the address pointed to theirs.

On the one hand, that's a lot less bad than it would be if the servers themselves were broken into. The New York Times continued to publish normally to their IP address, 170.149.168.130, and don't appear to have lost any data or sensitive information. On the other hand, the sites were still down, and the redirect still exposed users to potential security risks. For instance, it would be possible to build a passable version of a log-in page and steal a lot of passwords. When it comes to Twitter, one of the affected companies, the problems are even greater: the site has a lot of code embedded throughout the internet, in the form of tweet buttons and single-sign-in services. If the SEA had wanted, that could have been the beginning of a much more serious collection of hacks.

As it is, the group appears to have limited themselves to their normal operations, the digital equivalent of graffiti. Albeit graffiti in a very prominent place. But that it was so easy to take down the sites of such huge media organisations should give us all the shivers. The internet is a long way from secure, and some of the biggest problems left are fundamental to how the whole thing works.

What happens if you visit NYTimes.com

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty
Show Hide image

“A disaster waiting to happen”: Can you trust the government to digitise your personal data?

Privacy and security experts warn against the lesser-scrutinised Part 5 of the Digital Economy Bill, claiming bulk data sharing could be vulnerable to hacks.

Last week, the government’s Digital Economy Bill hit the news because of a proposed ban on pornographic websites that didn’t comply with its planned age verification rules. The news was just the right amount of shocking and yes, sexy, to grab the nation’s attention, but in the meantime other parts of the Bill remained unscrutinised. A distinctly un-sexy aspect of the Bill – Part 5, “Digital Government” – aims to completely revolutionise the way your personal data is shared.

In essence, Part 5 allows the government to digitise your data and bulk-share it without informing you or asking for your permission. This data includes your birth, death, and marriage certificates, as well as information on your taxes, court appearances, benefits, student loans, and even parking tickets. If the Bill passes, your information will be shared with local councils, charities, and even businesses – initially, gas and electricity companies.

Today, the Bill will undergo its third reading in the House of Commons. Last Friday, 26 privacy experts wrote to the Daily Telegraph to call for Part 5 to be removed from the Bill due to the lack of technical and legal safeguards in place.

“It's horrid and it's complex and it's going to impact all of us,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of Big Brother Watch, an organisation that scrutinises the government to protect individual privacy. Big Brother Watch was invited by the government to work on the Bill as part of the government’s Open Policy Making, but Samson feels it was ignored when discussing the need for strong safeguards in the Bill. “Holding civil registration documents in bulk and sharing them in bulk is without a doubt a data disaster waiting to happen.”

Samson and her team worry that the Bill does not do enough to protect our personal data. “They tell a little story in one of their documents about mothers being able to click and access their baby’s birth certificate instead of having to go and get a copy, which sounds brilliant except they haven’t defined how they’ll know the mother is who she says she is, and how she will know who she can trust on the other end,” she says. “In a perfect, idyllic utopia, it works, but it doesn’t take hacking into consideration.”

According to the National Audit Office, in 2014-15, there were 9,000 data breaches across government departments. The subsequent inquiries revealed that many officials did not know how to report a breach and there was not enough guidance for the authorities involved. “The government is already failing to look after our data,” says Samson. “Fundamentally [Part 5] will lead to data breaches. People’s data will get lost and we won't ever know how or why.”

Though the government denies it, there are additional fears that this digitisation of data is the beginning of an ID database, a policy that was scrapped in 2011. At the time, then-Home Office minister Damian Green said that ending the proposed National Identity Register demonstrated “the government’s commitment to scale back the power of the state and restore civil liberties”.

Whether or not a register is created, however, Samson and other privacy experts, as well as the British Medical Association, take issue with the fundamental justifications for bulk data sharing. “The reason that they've given for wanting to do all this is ‘wellbeing’, which is crap, frankly,” she says. “In the summer, the Scottish Parliament dropped the Named Person Scheme because the supreme court found that ‘wellbeing’ is simply not a strong enough reason to share people’s personal information. Of course they’re trying to do something great but they’re going about it in a really cack-handed fashion.”

One example of this is that the government intends to share your personal information with the Troubled Families programme to identify people who may be at risk. Although this is ostensibly positive, this information will also be used to determine anti-social behaviour. “On the one hand, they’re saying that they’ll make sure that families who need help will get it, but on the other, if it transpires that you’re noisy or you’re difficult on your estate, they will now share that data so you can have an Asbo.”

Fundamentally, then, although the aims of the Bill seem admirable, there are simply not enough safeguards and rules in place currently for it to safely become law. While this partially might be a simple error on the government’s part, Samson argues that the language of the Bill is “as open and broad and woolly as you can possibly imagine”, causing concern about how it might actually be used in practice. In theory, hundreds or thousands of businesses and authorities could have access to your data without your consent.

“No one is opposing the idea of data sharing,” says Samson, “But a) tell us why, b) keep us informed if you’re using our data, and c) let us control our data. That’s the only way this is all going to move forward.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.