Page last updated at 08:35 GMT, Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Gaza crisis spills onto the web

Rival pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli demonstrations in Los Angeles
Cyberattacks are an extension of strong feelings on boths sides of the conflict

By Flora Graham
BBC News

A propaganda war is being waged on the internet between supporters of the Israeli and Palestinian sides in the current conflict in the Gaza Strip.

Activists have turned to defacing websites, taking over computers, and shutting down Facebook groups.

US Military sites, Nato, and an Israeli Bank have all been targeted.

Experts have warned users to be on the lookout for phishing emails and webmasters to ensure their servers are secure.

The hacking of security barriers for political or ideological reasons has been branded by some as hacktivism. And it is thought that as use of the internet grows, so too will the number of attacks.

Defaced

On 7 January, pro-Palestinian hackers defaced several high-profile websites, including a US Army website, and the Nato Parliamentary Assembly's website.

Calling themselves "Agd_Scorp/Peace Crew", they replaced pages with white space and a well-known photograph of a boy throwing stones at an Israeli tank in Gaza, and the Israeli, American and British flags with a red strike through them.

"Stop attacks u israel and usa ! you cursed nations ! one day muslims will clean the world from you!" wrote the hackers.

Dwight Griswold, the Nato Parliamentary Assembly's head of IT, says that the attackers persisted in attempting access for a number of days following the initial attack, adding that the intruders did not gain access to any of the Assembly's internal servers.

It's clear that it is a result of what happening in Gaza. We see it as part of the war.
Yoav Keren
Domain The Net

"The fact is that it's always a cat and mouse game. There is no system that is impenetrable."

Hackers also hijacked the domain names of Israeli online news site ynetnews.com and the Israel Discount Bank. They rerouted visitors to a page showing anti-Israel messages with images of prisoners being abused in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Other approaches appealed to a web user's potential loyalties; a website called www.help-israel-win.com asked visitors to download and install a file that was later determined to be a trojan that could allow for remote access to and control of a computer.

The number of attacks has skyrocketed in Israel in the past few months, said Yoav Keren, chief executive of domain name registry Domain The Net.

"It's clear that it is a result of what happening in Gaza," said Mr Keren. "We see it as part of the war."

Israeli Arab and pro-Palestinian sites have also been targeted. Last year, hackers defaced three websites, replacing pages with the Israeli flag and the symbol of the banned far-right group Kach.

Speaking to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the manager of news website Arabs48.com Az a-Din Badran said his site was "constantly suffering from repeated hack attempts".

Facebook fight

The battle also looms large on social networking site Facebook, where dozens of groups related to the conflict in Gaza have sprung up.

Jewish Internet Defence Force
The JIDF say they do not engage in illegal activity

The clash flared up when a group using the logo of the Jewish Internet Defence Force (JIDF) took control of several of these groups.

They removed content and replaced it with statements supporting Israeli policy and criticising the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which controls Gaza, and replaced the groups' images with the JIDF logo.

Andrew Silvera, who is active on several pro-Palestinian groups on Facebook, was one of those targeted. He said that his account was hacked after he responded to a Facebook request from another user, inviting him to be an administrator of a similar group.

"As soon as I clicked it I realized there was something wrong with the link. It wasn't like a normal Facebook group.

"As soon as I pressed it, that was it, my account just vanished," he said. "They kidnapped my account."

Mr Silvera tried to contact Facebook about his account, but told BBC News that he had as yet received no reply.

Francesco Paris started a Facebook group criticising the JIDF's alleged behaviour online after he noticed that a group he wanted to join had been affected.

"I noticed that all of the discussion boards had been taken down, the description of the group had been changed to 'closed' and the tagline said something like 'Israel for life'," he told the BBC.

"The picture had a 'Jewish Internet Defence Force' [image], I had no idea what that was."

We are not hackers

Jewish Internet Defence Force

After noticing that the content of several other groups had been similarly altered, he started his group.

Mr Paris said that he received Facebook messages that attempted to gather his account login information.

He provided the BBC with a copy of one of these so-called "phishing" emails, which has a link leading to a fake Facebook login page that asks for users login detail.

A spokesperson for the JIDF, who declined to be named, told BBC News that it is an advocacy group that fights anti-Semitism online.

The group would not confirm whether the Facebook groups were shut down by people affiliated with the JIDF.

"We are not hackers. We are also not involved with phishing. We do not break the law for our work," the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson pointed out that one of the groups included anti-Semitic cartoons and graphic images of injured and dead people and criticised Facebook for allowing "hateful, anti-Semitic, racist material and material which promotes Islamic terrorism and violence" to remain on the site.

"Despite thousands of our members reporting offensive material, Facebook does not seem to act."

Hacked NATO site
Nato's Parliamentary Assembly site was also targeted

A spokesperson for Facebook said that the firm would not respond to specific alleged incidents, but that they were aware of the phishing attacks.

"We have noticed a couple of instances where a page or a group admin has had their account credentials phished. In such cases, we will reset the passwords on the users' accounts and they should have control again.

"We are just a platform and the discussions that are taking place online are also taking place offline," the Facebook spokesperson added.

"We are not taking sides."

Worse to come

Professor Peter Sommer, a cybercrime expert at the London School of Economics, says that security professionals have come to expect such hacktivism attacks.

The fear is…'look, if they can do this, what else can they do?'
Peter Power
Security expert

"It's been going on for at least 10 years. It's a very obvious form of making a protest," he said.

"It's far more attractive than turning up at an airport or outside an embassy and possibly getting arrested, certainly getting cold and possibly bruised in the process."

Social networking sites like Facebook are usually secure "at a fundamental level", he said, but users must take responsibility for their account's security.

"Unfortunately, security at a personal level is relatively hard work and rather tiresome, but there is no feasible alternative."

Peter Power, who sits on the Resilience subgroup of the of the UK Security Review Commission, said that cyberattacks are commonplace, noting a recent attack aimed at bringing down the whole of the UK's internet infrastructure that was stopped at a late stage.

Hacked Facebook group
Hacked Facebook groups had their descriptions and member lists changed

While not as dramatic as such large-scale attacks, simply redirecting a website to a propaganda message also creates a climate of fear.

"When people penetrate websites - and you see it on your screen - it becomes very personal to you. The fear is…'look, if they can do this, what else can they do?'" he said.

Mr Power emphasised that "the UK government is keenly aware of this [threat]" and has set up the CPNI (Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure) to protect the country's essential services.

The Nato Parliamentary Assembly's Dwight Griswold admitted that although they are embarrassing, he is not overly concerned about the messages hackers put on his organisation's website.

"My more worrisome threat is if someone breaks in and doesn't leave a big message like that."

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