Hackers Target Scientology Web Sites A group called "Anonymous" has been using "Distributed Denials of Service" to bring down the Web sites maintained by the religious group. Their problem isn't with the belief system, they say, but their insistence on controlling information.
NPR logo

Hackers Target Scientology Web Sites

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/18460759/18460764" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Hackers Target Scientology Web Sites

Hackers Target Scientology Web Sites

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/18460759/18460764" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It didn't get much notice this past week in the conventional media anyway, but a battle has been raging on the Internet.

Mr. RYAN SINGEL (Blogger, Wired.com): Currently, the Church of Scientology Web site is being attacked by a group of, kind of a loose confederation of online troublemakers who call themselves Anonymous. And they are using various pieces of software to kind of flood that Web site with fake traffic in an attempt to keep it down.

SEABROOK: That's Ryan Singel of wired.com. He says this group, Anonymous, mostly pulls off technologically sophisticated pranks on the Web, like blitzing chat rooms with spam and ordering dozens of pizzas for people they don't like. But this time, it appears, Anonymous means business. They declared war on the Church of Scientology in a most fitting way - a YouTube video.

(Soundbite of a YouTube video)

Synthesized Voice: Leaders of Scientology, we are Anonymous. Over the years, we have been watching you, your campaigns of misinformation, your suppression of dissent, your litigious nature - all of these things have caught our eye. Anonymous has, therefore, decided that your organization should be destroyed.

SEABROOK: What's their beef with the Church of Scientology? Ryan Singel says it's not actually the controversial nature of Scientology itself, which critics say is more a cult than a religion, but the tactics the Church of Scientology uses to control information about itself on the Internet. The organization has sent dozens of legal notices to Web sites that host documents, blogs and videos about Scientology, including a recent video of Tom Cruise, the organization's most famous convert.

Anonymous and other loose groups of hackers say they are staunch advocates of the free flow of information online. And so they target any organization they decide is impeding this. Ryan Singel describes how these online rebels are attacking the Church of Scientology Web site.

Mr. RYAN SINGEL (Writer, Wired.com): They're using what is called a denial of service attack, which is, essentially, you're sending so much bad traffic to a Web site that it's impossible for the servers to stay up. And the legitimate users who want to see the Web site can't get to it.

SEABROOK: The term, as you heard Ryan Singel of Wired.com just say, is denial of service attack or DDoS. It's a tactic used widely.

Keith Laslop heads an internet security company called Prolexic that tries to stop these cyber attacks. I spoke with him yesterday.

Your firm specializes in protecting other companies' sites from these denial-of-service attacks. First, can you give us a sense of how serious these kinds of attacks are or can be?

Mr. KEITH LASLOP (President, Prolexic): There is prank denial of service attacks, which tend to not be too serious. However, there's also extortion-based denial of service attacks. There's competitive sabotage-type denial of service attacks. And also, you know, governments launch cyber-censorship denial of service attacks. And these are different motivations. As you go up the ladder, the organizations that are launching them tend to become much more professional, so criminal organizations launch extortion-based DDoS attacks.

We have a customer in London - a major newspaper in London - The Daily Telegraph, who ran a quite a nasty article against Putin.

SEABROOK: Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr. LASLOP: Yes. And the article was about Litvinenko, the KGB agent who was assassinated in London with polonium. And it was essentially pointing the finger at Vladimir Putin. Next thing you know, that Web site - the online presence of this newspaper - was taken offline for a week, until they found us, and we brought them back up. So cyber-censorship is actually - and cyber-terrorism is where DDoS is going. And it's getting much more scary.

SEABROOK: So it sounds like there are lots of different motivations for groups for using this form of attack on organizations.

Mr. LASLOP: Correct. There is, of course, money is a major motivation for extortion-based DDoS attacks. And how extortion-based DDoS attacks work is that the extortionist will say, pay me anywhere between ten and a hundred thousand dollars - sometimes more, sometimes less - or I will take your Web site offline. And as you can imagine, many small and medium-sized businesses today, they rely on their online presence. If they are taken offline, then they're out of business.

I used to refer to the Internet as the Wild West because of all this stuff going on. But lately, it's becoming much more of a 1930s Al Capone era, where criminal organizations are actually getting stronger on the Internet.

SEABROOK: How widespread is this kind of thing? I mean, is - are denial of service attacks going on every day somewhere on the Internet or - can you give me a sense of the scope?

Mr. LASLOP: Every day, you don't tend to hear about them, but there's anywhere between five and ten thousand denial-of-service attacks going on in the world at any one point in time.

SEABROOK: That many.

Mr. LASLOP: That many. Now, a lot of them are what we refer to as script kitties, which are just trying to make a reputation for themselves. They might have gotten kicked off of a game server or a chat room and they want to take revenge. But the much more vicious attacks, much more professional attacks, don't happen that often. But when they do, the results are - can be devastating.

SEABROOK: I understand that these are often used against financial and banking industries, that Mafia organizations can use them. Can you give me some other examples?

Mr. LASLOP: Yeah. One of the most prevalent ones in the last six months has been the Russian elections. And in Russia, these denial of service attacks are really almost used as a tool for cyber-censorship. They use this as a tool to silence critics, silence opposition parties. In fact, Kasparov, the leader of the opposition - is also the chess player from a while back - he mentioned that the only way you can get a political message out of Russia is actually through YouTube. Because if you actually try to create your own opposition Web site and put a political message on that, they will actually take it offline.

SEABROOK: Keith Laslop is the president of Prolexic, an Internet security firm. Thanks for joining us, sir.

Mr. LASLOP: Thank you.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.