Denial Of Service : Hacktivism and cyber extortion against the establishment.

Roger William Masters


Denial of Service ( DOS attacks) are described by Yar (2006) as attacks on a network com-puter or computers that disrupt normal operations to such an extent that legitimate users can no longer access their services. Whilst there have been many technical papers written by computer scientists in order to try and combat DOS attacks, there have been few crimi-nological studies on this subject. This study sets out to detail the history of DOS attacks around the world. It provides an examination of the underlying reasons that such attacks have been carried out and examines the extent to which the forces of law and order have been successful in containing the threats and prosecuting the offenders.

In the UK, Internet usage has grown over the last 10 years at an extraordinary rate to the point where in 2010 60% of the UK adult population accessed the Internet every day or al-most every day. This is nearly double the estimate of 16.5 million in 2006. Partly fuelled by the relatively low start up costs of e – business web sites, and massive investment by the banking industry in secure e- payment facilities, the amount of trade and business conduct-ed electronically has increased in line with this growth in Internet usage by the population at large. The number of adults in the UK who bought or ordered goods or services online within the last 12 months reached 31 million in 2010 (Office for National statistics 2010). Similar growth rates are being seen in many developed countries around the world. Busi-nesses are becoming increasingly reliant on the internet as a source of turnover and income, and, as a result, continuous internet availability is now an integral criterion for business success

Outside the world of commerce, governments, the forces of law and order, NGOs, higher educational institutions and many other non commercial organisations are also becoming increasingly reliant on the availability of the Internet. Any disruption to internet services whereby legitimate users are unable to access an organisation’s web site is therefore poten-tially disruptive, costly and could have significant ramifications both economically and repu-tationally.

Denial of service (DOS) or Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attacks set out to achieve just this. DOS attacks on the private and public sectors are now common, and attacks have been used for a variety of criminal purposes. DOS attacks are not new, but remain difficult to combat. The first recorded large scale attack was in August 1999 on a network used by students and staff at the University of Minnesota, resulting in the network being shut down for more than two days. In 2000, sites at Yahoo,, CNN, Amazon and EBay were all affected by these attacks. In 2001 and 2002 Microsoft’s servers were disabled. A Russian crime gang used a DOS attack in an extortion attempt on UK gambling websites during the 2004 Grand National. In recent times, DOS attacks have been used to show ‘political’ sup-port for WikiLeaks and have been aimed at Master Card, Visa, Post Finance (a Swiss bank), Sarah Palin’s web site, and the Swedish Government. Other unrelated attacks have been launched against institutions as diverse as The Church of Scientology, and the web site of the U.K. Intellectual Property Office. In some cases, companies have allegedly paid the criminals a ransom to reveal how they brought the systems down, because from the corporate perspective it can cost less to pay the criminals than suffer the consequences of a DOS at-tack. Many companies have paid ransoms, and many have apparently suffered DOS attacks but not formally reported them to the authorities for fear of adverse publicity.

Those who seek to attack computerised systems in this way can be driven by a wide range of motives from a belief in freedom of access to information for all, to those who wish to perpetrate acts of vandalism, incapacitation, espionage or terrorism. Many of the recent high profile attacks have been in support of political and ideological goals. Government websites in both Tunisia and Egypt have been recently targeted by DOS attacks emanating from ‘hacktivists’ apparently in retaliation for censorship in both countries.

To date, relatively few arrests have been made around the world, and these have occurred primarily only in response to high profile cases. A 15 year old was amongst those recently arrested in the U.K. in connection with the WikiLeaks case, and the group claiming responsi-bility, Anonymous, is quoted as saying ‘You can easily arrest individuals, but you cannot ar-rest an ideology’.

Identifying, tracking down, arresting and successfully prosecuting those involved demands international police cooperation and a legal framework that facilitates successful conviction. In many cases it would seem that such conditions are far from being achieved. This paper sets out firstly to review the nature of the crimes committed and examines the impact of such attacks on organisations as well as the dynamics of both victims and offenders. It then focuses on the regulatory mechanisms developed to prevent such attacks and considers how the globalised international nature of the Internet has assisted or impaired such en-forcement. It concludes with an assessment of the effectiveness of the enforcement and criminal law systems in combating such attacks, both nationally and internationally.

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