Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A sharp clampdown by Iranian authorities may have quelled street protests, but the fight goes on in cyberspace. Groups of “hacktivists”- Web hackers demanding Internet freedom - say they are targeting Web pages of Iran’s leadership in response to the regime’s muzzling of blogs, news outlets and other sites.

It’s not clear how much the wired warriors have disrupted official Iranian sites. Recent attempts by the Associated Press to access sites for state news organizations, including the Islamic Republic News Agency and Fars, were unsuccessful - with a message saying the links were “broken.”

Other Iranian Web sites, including the official site for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were able to be viewed.

It’s the latest in a widening front of attempts at cyberattacks by activists and others. Last week, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates ordered the creation of a new military cybercommand that will coordinate the Pentagon’s efforts to defend its networks and conduct cyberwarfare.

In the Iranian showdown, the co-founder of the Open Source Initiative, Eric S. Raymond, has launched a site called NedaNet, after 27-year-old Neda Agha Soltan, who became a global symbol of the postelection protest after videos of her death by gunfire was posted on Web sites.

Mr. Raymond described his site as a place for hackers and Iranian protest movement sympathizers from around the world to team up in developing a system of proxy sites that cloak the location of users in Iran from the Iranian government.

Iranian authorities have launched a wide-ranging clampdown on many Web sites, including blogs, independent news outlets and sites linked to opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who claims the June 12 presidential election was rigged to hand victory to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

On Saturday, Mr. Raymond reported the group would be forced to change some of its tactics because the Iranian government had “upped the level of Internet censorship it’s engaging in.” Iranian government monitors were inspecting traffic more closely to see if users were accessing blocked Web sites, he said.

“We’re trying to provide a covert communication channel for dissenters and revolutionaries to organize through,” said Mr. Raymond in a telephone interview with the AP.

Mr. Raymond said a team of six hackers spends its days writing software to help Iranian Web users bypass state controls. More than 1,000 other people have offered bandwidth on servers to host proxy sites.

A Web page titled “Freedom Sucker” shows eight Iranian government sites, including Mr. Ahmadinejad’s blog, that are under a constant, automated attack by the page’s anonymous creator. Every second, the page attempts to reboot the pages in an attempt to overload them.

Other groups are also working to create Internet havens for Iranians, including a group called Project Hydra and the Free Net project. Mr. Raymond said that many of the groups are wary of allowing media interviews because hackers tend to operate in anonymity.

Meanwhile, the average Web surfer can simulate an attack on an Iranian state news organization of their choice. A Web site “War, war, until victory” allows visitors to engage in symbolic hacktivism and was developed by an Iranian blogger from Isfahan.

With the click of a button, an attack is simulated on the Web sites, including IRNA and other state news organizations.

“These buttons are only a way for the frustrations of young people to be settled, and in reality, are only an attack on their sorrows,” the site’s administrator wrote in an e-mail to the AP. The administrator commented on the condition of anonymity because of fears of government reprisals.

Cyberattacks have been around for years, but have gained increasing attention from governments and security services since Russian hackers waged a high-profile blitz on Estonia’s government and private-sector Web sites in May 2007. In response, NATO set up an Estonia-based cyberdefense center and plans to include cyberdefense in NATO exercises.

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