Thousands of websites hosted by Islandnet were flooded to the point of collapse last week to compel the Langford web hosting company to shut down a client’s blog page.
Problems began the evening of May 9 when Islandnet servers were knocked offline by what appeared to be too many users trying to access its sites at once, but was in fact a relatively sophisticated “distributed denial of service” attack.
The hacker infected a remote network computers with a virus and directed the machines to hit websites on Islandnet servers with data requests until the servers were overwhelmed and bogged down.
A similar style attack was used last December to crash the WikiLeaks website, and websites owned by several major credit card companies.
Islandnet owner Mark Morley was shocked to learn the same methods were being used against his comparatively small business.
“I couldn’t understand why they’d be going after us,” Morley said.
Attacks intensified each day. On Tuesday the servers, and sites that depend on them, were slow and dropped offline periodically. By Wednesday evening they’d crashed completely.
Morley was up all night at his Goldstream Avenue office, staying awake on coffee and soft drinks, trying to defend against unyielding attacks.
“It was like playing Whac-a-Mole for a while, every time we blocked one (attack), another would pop up,” Morley said.
Finally, on Thursday morning, Morley received an anonymous email from someone claiming responsibility for the attacks. The writer said the attacks would continue until Islandnet agreed to shut down a particular blog written by a Vancouver man detailing his custody battle. Morley wouldn’t reveal the name of the blog, but said it included some anti-female rants and negative comments towards judges and lawyers.
“We believe in freedom of speech, but ultimately we did decide to take the site down,” Morley said. “I didn’t feel good about it, but we couldn’t sacrifice service to thousands of websites to stand up for one customer.”
When the blog was removed, the attacks stopped and the hacker sent a polite email to Morley thanking him for his co-operation.
“After being awake for 48 hours, I had to chuckle at that,” Morley said. “Our company was held hostage by a polite terrorist.”
In nearly two decades of business, it was Islandnet’s first time being struck by this type of attack, but it’s not the first time Morley has dealt with somebody wanting a site shut down.
“People threaten legal action occasionally,” Morley said. “I tell them I won’t take the site down without a court order, and usually they give up.”
Kris Constable, a computer privacy consult and director of the Victoria-based PrivaSecTech, said anyone who can use a Google search could download software to carry out a denial of service attack to temporarily block access to a website, but controlling a network of computers for a prolonged distributed attack takes skill.
“It’s surprising somebody with the sophistication to do that would bother going after someone as small as Islandnet,” he said, noting it’s possible someone hired a hacker for the job.
Longtime Islandnet user Colin Newell hosts his blog CoffeeCrew and a dozen other websites with the company. He was initially put off by his service provider giving a fellow blogger the boot.
“It could have just as easily been my blog causing the attack,” Newell said, noting he occasionally posts his opinions about domestic and foreign politics. “I wouldn’t have wanted my blog taken down like that.”
However he said he isn’t going to change his service provider over it. “It’s a business decision. I’m sure it wasn’t an easy choice to make,” Newell said.
Islandnet hosts more than 5,000 websites, including many popular local sites such as Thrifty Foods, the Belfry Theatre and Bolen Books. Cumulatively its sites are accessed by more than 10 million users per day.
“It’s pretty significant to have all those sites down, even for a short time,” Morley said. “We’ve asked the RCMP to investigate this and try to find the person behind it.”