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Last Updated: Friday, 2 April, 2004, 12:03 GMT 13:03 UK
Bookies race to beat net attacks
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent

Runners and riders in the Grand National, PA
Completing the Grand National is a big challenge
The Grand National may be popular with the British public but, so far, it is not a favourite with online criminals.

In recent months extortionists have threatened gambling websites with web-based attacks unless they pay up.

But analysis of website responses at 20 British bookmakers shows that the Grand National has not prompted a new round of denial of service attacks.

Bookmakers are avoiding attack using technology to spot and stop data barrages before they hit web servers.

Site seeing

In March BBC News Online, in co-operation with web monitoring firm Netcraft, started logging response times of 20 bookmakers to see if they came under attack.

In the first 19 days of monitoring Netcraft logged 33 outages on the sites it was scrutinising.

Many of these outages, suffered by the websites of William Hill, Betdaq, Totalbet and UKBetting, bore all the hallmarks of a denial of service (DoS) attack.

Capital Sports
Total Bet
Sporting Odds
William Hill
Sporting Bet
Victor Chandler
Blue Square
Paddy Power
Tote BetXpress
Premier Bet
Bet Direct
Stanley Bet
UK Betting
By contrast between 19 March and 1 April, Netcraft logged 23 outages almost all of which seemed to be due to site maintenance rather than an attack.

Most of these outages were of short duration and happened late at night suggesting they were planned.

The only site that suffered a long term outage was that of Paddy Power which was not responding, according to Netcraft, for more than 48 hours between 27 and 29 March.

The results suggest that either the criminals seeking to extort money from gambling sites have ended their attacks or that bookmakers are getting better at dealing with them.

This week the UK's National Hi-Tech Crime Unit played down claims that bookmakers were being targeted ahead of the weekend's Grand National race.

It said it was investigating attacks that have happened in the past but was not expecting Saturday's race at Aintree to trigger more attacks.

Bookmakers are also taking other steps to protect themselves against the types of attacks mounted by the criminals, said Paul Gracie of Redline Networks.

Mr Gracie said some bookmakers are putting so-called proxy servers between the computers that host their website and the internet.

These proxies act as filters and are tuned to spot the data packets crafted by some types of attacks.

They stop the attack traffic arriving at the server and instead only pass on genuine traffic.

Flood warning

But, said Mr Gracie, some of the attack traffic was harder to spot because of the type of attack being used.

Response graph for Paddy Power, Netcraft
Some sites have been offline recently
One of the most popular is the well-known Syn Flood attack that tries to overwhelm a server with legitimate connection requests.

Jose Nazario, an expert on web worms and DoS attacks from Arbor Networks, said that Syn Flood first came to light in 1996.

Mr Nazario said that it worked by simply repeating connection requests. Because the attacker simply wants to overwhelm a server, rather than browse what is on it, they do not care if these connection requests are honoured.

"This was all the rage about eight years ago," said Mr Nazario. "But as it's a long known technique there are a lot of defences against it."

This has meant that for a Syn Flood attack to be successful it has to use far more computers to be effective and overwhelm a website.

Mr Gracie from Redline said bookmakers faced a particular problem because many of their websites were in off-shore hosting centres that had limited bandwidth in and out.

"They can generate a very large attack and taking out the upstream net service provider server as well," he said.

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