Knocking on Heaven’s Door

It was hardly unexpected, a ‘Distributed Denial of Service’ (DDoS) attack on the No10 website at the end of March, followed by the familiar argument that if Mr Blair had more faith in Open Source Apache rather than Internet Information Server, the symbolic heart of government wouldn’t be interrupted by protests of this kind.

We do however need to remember that whilst Apache claims to be the most used Web server, the vast majority of Apache installs are the free-ISP-type homepages. When the same measurement is done for real business websites, Microsoft's IIS represents a much more significant majority of the installed base. So whey then is Windows used when the 'apparent' security is so questionable? The answer is of course that even given the apparent concerns, it remains the server platform of choice for most organisations, even when the full cost of ownership is considered and takes into account the cost of ongoing patching.

I asked Microsoft’s Chief Security Officer (UK) Stuart Okin, whether protecting a Web server from a DDoS attack involves rather more than simply parking an armed Penguin at the front door?. He replied that any environment requires the presence of a good security policy which integrates ‘people process and technology’, a foundation principle of Microsoft’s own ‘Trustworthy Computing’ strategy.

As you might expect in the middle of a war, the Mi2G intelligence service reports a dramatic increase in the number of web attacks since the start of the military campaign against Iraq and predicts that March may well become the worst month for digital attacks ever since records began in 1995. What I find most interesting in the release is that it identifies the principal Operating System targeted as Linux, not Windows, commenting that 71 % of all digital attacks recorded to date in MArch were against Linux systems, and only 24 % involved Microsoft Windows.

Forget mass protest, DDoS can prove much more effective as a nuisance to the authorities and it doesn’t involve carrying a banner on a bus ride to the nearest city or even country where you might wish to stage your protest. Whether you choose to place your faith in God or Apache or IIS is debatable, if enough effort and intellect are concentrated against your Server. This of course would have to be fully patched and up-to-date if it were to offer even token resistance against being ‘Pinged to death’ or attacked with a can- opener library of other exploits, many of which I can find on my latest ‘Tiger Tools’ CD.

As government comes to rely increasingly on technology, it becomes more vulnerable to the threat of interruption. Prior to the arrival of the Personal Computer, the old way of running a country was painfully slow and marginally less efficient than it is today but the essential command and control systems could always function by post or by telephone. Interrupt the Inland Revenue’s systems for twenty-four hours or more in the information age and the mind ‘boggles’ at the chaos that might follow.

What I will say, is I believe that Mi2G are going completely ‘Over the Top’ warning us that: “There is no doubt about the linkages between physical terrorism and waves of digital attacks that act as a barometer of negative sentiment. It should not come as a surprise if US, UK or Australian assets are attacked by terrorists anywhere in the world in the coming days and weeks."

Rather like the threat of ‘Weapons of Mass destruction’ I have yet to see any real evidence of link between terrorism and digital risk. I see lots of evidence of protest moving ‘Web-side’ as an intelligent manifestation of popular feeling but no sign of Ernst Stavro Blofeld or some other shadowy Bond character out there and prepared to bring the country to its knees with an attack on UK-Online. Microsoft’s Chief Security Strategist, Scott Charney, sums up his opinion on cyber-terrorism by remarking:

“First, it's not actually so easy to bring down the networks. There's a lot of redundancy and a lot of resiliency. Second, it doesn't create the kind of graphic pictures that terrorists often want. Third, it doesn't create the kind of fear that terrorists want”.

Instead, the best that ‘Mudge’ and his fellow cyber-warriors can do, is pick on the relatively soft-target of the No 10 website, which is far more likely to draw applause from the population than leave them in fear of the prospect of cyber-terrorism.

Let’s be honest. This month we should all be more worried by things that go bang than by things that go buzz and simply employing a Penguin as a defensive measure may not be the most effective means of defending 10 Downing St from the reach of world opinion.


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