In Georgia, a Parallel War Rages Online

Cyberattacks took down Georgian websites even before the bombs fell, but damage so far is short term.

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The fact that these attacks are so cheap to mount and easy to conceal is one of the reasons they have become the rule, rather than the exception, during periods of international tension. While the incidents in Georgia have been widely publicized, this is not the first time such attacks have been mounted to coincide with military action. In previous conflicts in Kosovo, India, Pakistan, and Israel and Palestine, as well as during the 2001 spy plane incident between the China and the United States, hackers have directed their mischief against their country's foes. Nationalistic hackers in Russia are a likely source of the Georgian attacks, security experts say, though they point out that investigations—and the attacks—are still ongoing.

What does separate the cyberassault on Georgia from past efforts is the intensity. Following the controversial decision to remove a monument to Soviet heroism in the Second World War in the spring of 2007, hackers using a Russian organized crime-controlled botnet mounted a successful offensive against websites in Estonia, which is one of the most wired countries in the world.

The latest analysis from Shadowserver indicates that the Georgian attacks have similarities to the Estonian attacks in several respects. However, the latter were generally longer in duration but less intense than the Georgian attacks. The peak bandwidth—a measure of the number of zombie computers converging on a given target site and the speed of their connections—during the Estonian incident was 100 megabits per second, while the Georgian attacks peaked at some 800 megabits per second, says Nazario.

Cyberattacks are not well codified in international law, leaving open the question of whether or not a damaging cyberattack could be considered an act of war if it was conducted by a foreign state.

For now, U.S. officials are stressing the need to bolster the nation's cyberdefenses. Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff has called for an American "Manhattan Project" to defend government computer networks.

Asked in a Senate hearing this year if the United States was prepared for a cyberattack, National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell pointed to threats from both China and Russia, offering bad news for legislators: "We're not prepared to deal with it."


Corrected on : Corrected on 8/14/08: An earlier version of this story should have stated that Georgia is Russia’s neighbor on the Black Sea.