Pressure Mounts for US to Intervene in Attacks on SF Website

Cyber attacks began after Change.org hosted a petition calling for release of Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei

As cyber attacks continue to pummel the San Francisco website Change.org, pressure is mounting for the U.S. government to intervene in the virtual hostilities, which the company contends originated in China.

Change.org, a small startup, came under a relentless barrage of distributed denial-of-service, or DDoS, attacks last week, apparently in retaliation for hosting a petition calling on China to release Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and outspoken critic who was detained by authorities three weeks ago.

Brian Purchia, the website’s spokesman, said the attacks have intensified over the past week. As of Monday, the website was receiving about 10 million visits a day, of which only 100,000 were legitimate, Purchia said.

Meanwhile, the petition calling for Ai’s release, which was drafted by several prominent museum curators, has accumulated more than 120,000 signatures.

Change.org said Tuesday that it was in talks with legislators from both parties, including Rep. Frank R. Wolf, the Republican chairman of the House Human Rights Committee, Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the Democrat from New York, to publicly call on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to denounce the attacks.

The discussions follow a letter that Rep. Rosa R. DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut, sent to Clinton Monday, urging her to condemn the attacks and “call on the Chinese government to take swift action” to stop and prosecute the hackers.

The incident, DeLauro wrote, “is an attack on Americans’ fundamental right to free speech and another example of the Government of China’s intent to restrain human rights.”

Joanne Moore, a spokeswoman for the State Department, declined comment. The FBI has given no indication of whether it is investigating the matter.

Political pressure from Capitol Hill could present a challenge for the Obama administration. Perpetrators of DDoS attacks are often impossible to identify. And whereas the State Department denounced cyber attacks originating in China on Google’s email caches, Change.org is a tiny, private startup that that helps nonprofits and political activists with organizing efforts.

Analysts have disputed claims by Ben Rattray, Change.org’s co-founder, that the Chinese government most likely sponsored the attacks because hackers needed to bypass the “Great Firewall of China,” which the government uses to restrict Internet traffic, to launch DDoS attacks.

The Chinese government has denied any role in the attacks.

Richard Steinnon, a security expert based in Los Angeles, said that DDoS attacks originating from mainland China are so common that commercial companies around the Pacific Rim sometimes hire Chinese hackers to attack their competitors.

“It’s pretty easy to get around the firewall,” said Steinnon. “These are very, very common. It’s hard to attribute it to the government. All you need is a nationalist populace, and they take care of it for you.”

But analysts also say that even if the Chinese government had nothing to do with the attacks, it could take measures to curb traffic to Change.org from China, said Jose Nazario, the senior manager for security research for Arbor.net, a network security company.

During such attacks, hackers take control of a network of computers known as a botnet and direct them to simultaneously access a website with the goal of overwhelming its servers. Most recently, the hacker group Anonymous famously brought down PayPal and Visa with a barrage of DDoS attacks after the firms agreed to freeze WikiLeaks’ accounts under government pressure.

Keeping its servers up amid sustained attacks could cost Change.org tens of thousands of dollars a year, said Nazario. Shortly after the attacks began last week, Change.org hired DOSarrest, a Vancouver-based security company, to begin hosting the website on a cloud server, limiting the impact of the attacks.

“The downtime associated with the cyber attack on Change.org has cost our company tens of thousands of dollars in revenue, and we’ve had to spend tens of thousands of dollars more to ensure the site doesn’t suffer from the ongoing attacks,” Purchia said.

Security experts say DDoS attacks are growing in popularity around the world, largely due to their simplicity and low cost. As hackers distribute “tool kits” and disseminate information about how to take down websites, cyber warfare is becoming an almost inevitable facet of international politics.

In 2007, Russian hackers reportedly overwhelmed government and bank servers in Estonia when the two countries were engulfed in a feud over a Soviet-era grave marker. Georgian websites also came under attack the following summer during the Russian-Georgian war.

Nazario said in recent years, various pro-Israel and pro-Palestine websites, as well as those calling for Tibetan independence or regime change in Burma or Iran have all come under DDoS attacks.

“The Internet is a tremendous method for these groups to get their message out,” said Nazario, “and because of that, these attacks will continue, whether they’re sponsored by government or its citizens taking attacks in their own hands.”