Russia accused of crippling online media

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MOSCOW — A political battle is raging in Russian cyberspace.

Opposition parties and independent media say murky forces have committed vast resources to hacking and crippling their Web sites in attacks similar to those that hit tech-savvy Estonia as the Baltic nation sparred with Russia over a Soviet war memorial.

While they offer no proof, the groups all point the finger at the Kremlin, calling the electronic siege an attempt to stifle Russia’s last source of free, unfiltered information.

The victims, who range from liberal democrats to ultranationalists, contend that their hacker adversaries hope to harass the opposition with the approach of parliamentary elections in December and presidential elections next March.

Some independent specialists agree.

“A huge information war awaits Russia before the elections,” said Oleg Panfilov of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations.

The groups claim the attackers use vast, online networks of computers infected with malicious software — whose owners probably aren’t aware they are involved — to paralyze or erase targeted Web sites.

Stanislav Belkovsky, a political analyst thought to have close ties to Kremlin insiders, said a senior associate of President Vladimir Putin is leading the electronic assault. The government denies it and insists it has nothing to do with the onslaught. The Kremlin said hackers could easily forge Internet Protocol addresses registered to government offices.

Mr. Belkovsky, founder of the Moscow-based National Strategy Institute, said the Kremlin is upset that it was unable to control the political content of online media. “The Kremlin can’t just tell their editors to remove an unwanted publication,” he said.

The attacks are similar to assaults — sometimes a million computers strong — unleashed in April and early May against Web sites in Estonia. Officials there say waves of attacks crashed dozens of government, corporate and media Web sites in one of Europe’s most wired societies.

The electronic warfare included computer-generated spam and so-called Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attacks. It erupted during violent protests by ethnic Russians against the decision to move a Soviet-era Red Army monument out of downtown Tallinn, the Estonian capital.

The DDoS attacks involve a flood of computers all trying to connect to a single site at the same time, overwhelming the computer server that handles the traffic. Estonian authorities claimed they traced the attacks to Kremlin IP addresses.

Outside specialists say blocking this type of Web assault is difficult or impossible because the host server has no way of distinguishing between legitimate and bogus requests for access.

“It doesn’t matter if the Web site itself has a lot of protection,” said Hari Balakrishnan, a computer science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “People are not breaking into it. People are just making requests of it.”

Government security services have long been suspected of engaging in hacking. In 1999, an unidentified hacker in Moscow penetrated U.S. Defense Department computers for more than a year, copying classified naval codes and data on missile-guidance systems. The Kremlin denied involvement.

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