NATO sites hammered in Crimea ballot cyber protests

Pro-Russian hacktivists claimed credit for attacks on several NATO websites on the eve of Sunday's controversial referendum in Crimea to determine whether the territory secedes from Ukraine.

Cyber Berkut (KiberBerkut), a pro-Russian hacktivist group, on Saturday claimed responsibility for denial of service attacks knocked out NATO’s main site nato.int, nato-pa.int and ccdcoe.org, website of the NATO-affiliated cyber security organisation based in Estonia.

In a statement on its website Cyber Berkut said it wants NATO and other Western nations to stop interfering in Ukrainian politics. The group claimed to have terminated the attacks on Sunday.

nato.int and nato-pa.int remained offline throughout Sunday, however ccdcoe.org was restored by then.

Cyber Berkut has claimed to be behind attacks on several Ukraine media sites throughout March, and also claims to have blocked phone communications of neo-nazi groups in the Ukraine.

“They are staunch supporters of the former President Viktor Yanukovych who fled to Russia last month and they hate Yulia Tymoshenko who was freed from prison on Feb 22,” cyber warfare author Jeffrey Carr said in a blog post.

“Berkut is the name of a special police force within the Ministry of Internal Affairs who used terrorist tactics against anyone who threatened Yanukovych's Presidency, especially those who supported the Euromaiden revolution.”

According to NATO, the cyber attacks did not affect the integrity of NATO’s data and systems.

The attacks on NATO sites occurred on the eve of Crimea’s ballot, which offers the mostly Russian speaking population two choices: to re-unite with Russia or to have greater autonomy while remaining part of the Ukraine.

NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Friday said the results of the Crimean referendum would not be recognised. His comments came as Russia vetoed a United Nations draft resolution urging countries not to recognise the results of the Crimean ballot. The Ukraine Government in Kiev believes the poll is illegal.

The affected NATO sites are the latest in dozens of Ukraine and Russian websites to have been hit by cyber attacks related to the Crimean territory dispute. Several Ukraine news sites were offline|]] briefly throughout Sunday, reportedly due to denial of service attacks.

Moscow’s Kremlin website on Friday was also temporarily out of action as a result of a “powerful cyber attack” — however it’s not clear that was related to Moscow’s actions in Crimea.

Ukraine’s security service SBU earlier this month said attacks that were jamming Ukraine mobile network services were coming via a Crimea-based mobile operator. The Ukrainian government website kmu.gov.au was also knocked offline for several days in March.

While cyber attacks related to current tensions in Ukraine haven’t reached the scale of those against Estonian websites in 2007 and Georgia in 2008, the way it’s playing out — via hacktivists — may provide researchers with new territory to explore in cyber warfare.

“This is a textbook example of how Anonymous with its anarchist framework ("we are all Anonymous") can be easily co-opted to support the political agenda of a nation state while appearing to be an opposition movement,” wrote Carr.

“A careful study of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict including the creation and use of hacktivist groups by one or more security services is essential for cyber warfare researchers, practitioners, lawyers, and policy makers.”

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