Australia has recently faced criticism for its active role in US-led spying networks in the region, particularly from Indonesia. But the backlash to digital eavesdropping hasn’t been isolated to diplomatic circles and leadership groups, or even to the physical world.
The other dimension to this diplomatic fallout is the arousal of frustration, suspicion and anger within the wider Indonesian public. As part of this dynamic, it has been documented that Indonesian hacking groups had successfully conducted a ‘denial of service’ attack against the Australian Secret Intelligence Service website. Such an attack refers to the flooding of an online server with false requests until it’s completely down and non-operational—computer systems ‘crash’.
Nonetheless, it appears that a less-than-surgical, nationalist rejoinder by Anonymous Indonesia didn’t entertain some of its Australian counterparts. Not only had ASIS been targeted but hundreds of random Australian websites, including small businesses, were caught-off guard and disrupted. In response to this ‘friendly fire’, Anonymous Australia warned (video) that ‘these sites are not affiliated with the Australian government and should be left alone’. In an effort to show a semblance of camaraderie, Anonymous Australia did supply a number of alternative links to apparently more attractive Australian government targets: ‘below will be a list of websites that have been associated with the government spying and they should be your main targets’, listing ASIO, ASIS and ASD sites.
But indicative of the amorphous, leaderless loosely-organised world of hacking, not all Australian hackers decided to shy away from some sort of cyber-retaliation. Blowback included hitting several Indonesian websites including that of its national airline Garuda Indonesia. A Garuda spokesperson added the company didn’t have the capacity to track down the perpetrators. Interestingly, in an open letter to the media (on pastebin.com), Anonymous Australia acted quickly to deny any direct involvement in repercussions and instead suggested ‘Clearly someone is trying to frame us to start trouble.’
Certainly, such cyber-intrusions and tit-for-tat exchanges on information technology systems from hacktivists, will evolve and might exhibit patterns of escalation. Hacking activity like denial of service attacks is relatively easy and can result in consequences such as personal inconveniences and financial loss. But they fall a long way short of being cyber warfare. The revenge attacks by Indonesia Anonymous and their Australian parallels aren’t connected to violence—they’re more akin to a type of cyber-graffiti that could be seen as a form of juvenile internet-vandalism.
So far, denial of service attacks against Internet connected systems have had a negligible impact on national security. While unquestionably frustrating, cyber-hooliganism directed at non-essential services is usually quickly contained, while the target itself isn’t irreparably damaged. This recent electronic sabotage is a transitory nuisance rather than a major threat to the core business of an organisation like ASIS.
A similar example was in December 2012, when a lone hacker stole details of up to 20,000 Australian military staff. Stolen personal information included names, birthdays, identification numbers, passwords and email addresses. Section of the media categorised the security failure as ‘one of the worst known cyber-attacks’ on a government organisation within Australia.
This was despite the fact it was acknowledged by Defence that most of the stolen information wasn’t confidential and was out-of-date. The hacker, known as Darwinare, boasted on-line that the hack was for ‘fun’—a motivation based on the hope of gaining some instant ‘street cred’.
Such incidents point to some hackers being driven by fairly rudimentary goals. Many can be characterised as thrill-seekers eager for a high-profile challenge—an occasion to display a specific skill set fuelled by ego, mischief or notoriety.
Daniel Baldino is a senior lecturer in politics & international relations at the University of Notre Dame, Australia. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.