Seeds of discontent behind M'sia cyberattacks

Netizen frustration over censorship led to recent attacks on government sites, say industry watchers, who add social media helping to fan anger.
Written by Edwin Yapp, Contributor

PETALING JAYA--The recent bout of cyberattacks on the Malaysian government is likely driven by several factors, not all of which are technology-related.

Netizen frustration over government intervention via censorship, which occurs from time to time, and the ease at which they can vent their grievances through social media channels, may have exacerbated the situation, say industry watchers.

Newswire Reuters reported Thursday that online activist group Anonymous brought down more than 40 Web sites belonging to the Malaysian government, in what appeared to be a retaliation move against censorship.

The government, through industry regulator the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), last week issued a directive to all Internet service providers (ISPs) asking them to block access of 10 specific Web sites. Most of the sites were file sharing in nature, including the well-known The Pirate Bay portal.

On its part, the government defended its actions, noting such moves were necessary to curb the rampant piracy and copyright violations that it said was happening through such sites.

A security expert ZDNet Asia spoke with, who declined to be named, noted that the recent attacks on the government's Web infrastructure are an indication that some Malaysians have reached the breaking point insofar as how the government has chosen to regulate the Internet.

"You could say this is the straw that has broken the camel's back," the expert said. "The government today controls so much of people's lives and the Internet is probably the only area they haven't controlled. It is also trying to do that now, which doesn't sit well with netizens, and this may have spurred the attacks."

Dhillon Kannabhiran, founder and CEO of Hack in The Box, concurred, noting that the Internet is probably the last bastion of freedom Malaysians can experience.

"The government says it is filtering these Web sites to curb piracy but in reality, filtering is just another way of practising censorship; after all it's just semantics," he pointed out.

The government, he added, had promised not to censor the Internet in its Bill of Guarantees (BOG). "But now, it's just doing that, and this may have caused some to retaliate."

Malaysia is one of the few countries in world that has promised not to censor the Internet and has legislations--the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 and the BOG--which were enacted specifically to guarantee against censorship.

Voicing via social media
Besides these specific cyberattacks on government portals, Malaysians have also been increasingly more vocal regarding their displeasure at the government's actions and policies through social media channels.

According to Ong Kian Ming, political scientist and lecturer at the UCSI University's faculty of Economics and Policy Science, Malaysians' feelings of frustration and political beliefs against the powers that be have always been present in society.

In an e-mail interview, Ong noted that previously, protests against the government of the day would occur through voting against the candidates of the party in power or in more direct forms through street protests or more violent demonstrations.

"Now, because of the Internet, especially through social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook, there is a relatively low cost and efficient way of reaching out to a larger number of people to protest against governments," he said.

Ong said that such tools are useful in organizing virtual protests for two reasons. The first, he said, is because they can capture the different who would otherwise not have bothered to show up for a rally or talk. The second is because these tools can disseminate information through various networks to pull virtual protesters to certain "nodes" or focal points of virtual protest activity, he added.

Asked how these kind of cyber activism may evolve in the near future, Ong noted that the methods of online protests will continue to improve and become more sophisticated. "For example, I can imagine tools where online protesters can sign up with their Facebook profiles to register their protests, all of which will then be automatically sent to either the Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and e-mail of certain politicians who are the target of these protests."

Ong added that mobile apps will increasingly be used as a means of registering and consolidating these protesters. Social media will also be used to greater effectiveness in terms of organizing physical protest gatherings in the future, he said.

Dismissing attacks a bad idea
Meanwhile, local news portal The Malaysian Insider reported yesterday that the MCMC dismissed the attacks on the 41 Web sites that were disrupted as of "little impact", adding that it did not expect the overall recovery of the sites to take long as most are already back up.

Dhillon, however, warned that while the Web sites may have recovered, dismissing the attacks as of little impact was not a good idea as hackers could lie in wait and choose to attack at a later day and in a more severe manner.

"The best thing to do, in this case, is not to do anything," he advised. "If the Web sites are operational again, it's best to let that speak for itself instead of throwing down the gauntlet and dismissing what has happened as trivial. Hackers do not like to be challenged and such moves to do so aren't wise."

Asked what could be done to mitigate further attacks, Dhillon said there is no sure way to fully protect government Web sites against distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks.

The government could employ a content distribution network (CDN) to help mitigate further attacks, he said, adding that by doing so, its Web sites could still function as not all content resides in a single server.

Edwin Yapp is a freelance IT writer based in Malaysia.

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