GoDaddy hack denial highlights touchy security climate

Hacking reports circle world before the truth can even get its shoes on

It caused a furore as customers in Australia and around the world found themselves unable to access key online services, but the way in which news of the hacking of GoDaddy quickly spread highlights the hysteria of a world where hacking is now all but automatically blamed for service outages.

GoDaddy, which suffered a major outage on September 10, wrote customers over the weekend to apologise for the service outage, which it blamed on "a series of internal network events that corrupted router data tables".

Addressing widespread media reports that the four-hour outage at the major domain name registrar was the work of hacking group Anonymous, the statement by GoDaddy CEO Scott Wagner used boldfaced type to spell out the truth.

"At no time was any sensitive customer information, including credit card data, passwords or names and addresses, compromised," Wagner said, repeating earlier denials that the company was hacked and writing off the event as a failure to meet the company's SLAs.

The statement refuted claims by hacker group du jour Anonymous, which rushed to claim credit for the outage and even released a YouTube video (subsequently removed) to explain why.

It's not the first time hackers have falsely claimed credit for an online problem: earlier this month, Anonymous splinter group AntiSec claimed it had stolen 12 million Apple unique device identifiers (UDIDs) from a hacked FBI laptop. The claims were quickly refuted by the FBI and Apple, but the claims were still bandied about until it was recently found that the UDIDs had in fact come from a Florida development firm called Blue Toad.

Such incidents not only raise questions about the real genesis of the problems involved, but raise questions about the groups' motivations in the first place – and the world's willingness to accept their claims at face value.

"It's not surprising these days" that the online world would be prepared to accept hacker group's claims they had penetrated high-profile targets even when they had not done so, says Ty Miller, CTO of security and penetration-testing consultancy Pure Hacking.

Earlier this year Pure Hacking reported that its client base had seen a tripling of targeted attacks and warned that the cyber war against Australian companies would only continue to escalate. This trend – fuelled by high-profile wins against the likes of Sony and LinkedIn – was feeding a climate of fear and perceived danger, in which the public has simply come to expect that claims of high-profile hacks are legitimate.

When services go down, "everybody is jumping to the conclusion these days that it's a security breach rather than a technical fault," Miller adds. "There's definitely a bit of paranoia with using online services these days, and there's a lot more media coverage when security breaches do occur."

Hacker groups' willingness to claim responsibility for attacks they did not perpetrate suggests they are using outages like the one at GoDaddy as propaganda tools – and indications are that they have many online readers eating out of their hands.

Lack of follow-up may be to blame in many cases, he says: many news browsers read the initial reports of the hackers' claims, then assume it is true because they never make the effort to read subsequent reports as more details emerge.

"In the public ones where a lot of people are affected, they tend to delay their statement if they think they have been hacked," Miller says.

That's not to say that hacks aren't still a regular occurrence: when Pure Hacking is called in to investigate because companies suspect they've been hacked, Miller says, they're usually right. "Sometimes they have been hacked multiple times, and they just didn't know about it until a subsequent hack happened," he says. "If it's private and nobody knows about it and there's no media coverage about it, it tends to be the case that they just want to find out what happened, clean it up, and get their business back online."

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