The attack was foretold by a Pastebin.com message posted earlier in the day. Allegedly authored by "Cyber fighters of Izz ad-din Al qassam," a reference to the military wing of Hamas, the posting also declared that the New York Stock Exchange would suffer a similar assault--a threat that has evidently gone unfulfilled.
The posting blamed both the United States and the "Zionist Regime" for the offending film and promised continued aggression until the "erasing of that nasty movie," which YouTube has blocked in volatile regions but which remains freely accessible elsewhere. The initial targets were chosen, the posting declares, because they "are properties of America-Zionist Capitalists."
Bank of America told Reuters that the website had suffered some problems but was available to customers. "We are working to ensure full availability," Mark Pipitone, a bank spokesman told Reuters. Without specifically commenting about a possible denial-of-service attack, Pipitone said: "I can tell you that we continuously take proactive measures to secure our systems."
The New York Stock Exchange, operated by NYSE Euronext, declined to comment, Reuters reported.
[ It can be hard to tell when a problem is caused by an external attack or an internal mistake. Read GoDaddy Outage: Anonymous Attack Or IT Failure? ]
Bill Pennington, chief strategy officer at WhiteHat Security, said in an interview that Bank of America's website problems do not necessarily verify the Pastebin claims. Stating that "it's reasonable to believe it could be coincidence," he cited the recent GoDaddy outage, which saw hackers attempt to take responsibility for what was in fact a series of internal technical errors.
Nonetheless, he said the incident could have been a denial-of-service attack. "They're pretty easy," he stated. "You can rent computing resources from various botnets for almost pennies on the dollar." Even if one lacks the technical sophistication to launch an attack, simply announcing malicious goals can be enough, he said. Groups such as Anonymous, for example, can take down a site not merely through the efforts of active members and sympathizers but also "a bunch of people watching, generating traffic" while they wait to see what happens. Additional risks, he said, include unaffiliated groups that "hop into" the fray, knowing that scrambling companies will find it "very difficult to pick out" attackers.
Pennington cautioned that companies need to be aware that cyber attacks are part of "the landscape we live in today." He said that many organizations have done their parts, declaring that security concerns--once the purview of "geeks in the IT department"--are now addressed by executives in boardrooms. Each second a site like Bank of America's is offline, he explained, the company loses money, so "business people are starting to understand … what would actually happen if their site is largely unavailable for three days."
Security-minded companies can thwart DDoS attacks "to some extent," he said, but "it's really hard to build an infrastructure" that won't be overwhelmed by a massive attack. "If a million people log on right now, they're going to have a problem," he stated.
Efforts to block coordinated DDoS attacks are hampered by the relatively unimposing nature of the devices that hackers sometimes employ. A phone has less computing power than a laptop, for example, but Pennington said "if all it needs to do is make an http request every second, and you have all the phones in the world doing that, it becomes difficult to withstand. There's only so much you can do."
Indeed, while it is unlikely that an attack could actually harness billions of phones, hackers and malware authors have continually carved out new methods for creating botnets and the brute computing force that comes with them. Even Macs, once all-but-immune to nefarious intruders, can be reduced to "zombie" machines via illicit toolkits that are so cheap as to remove all barriers to entry.
Bank of America's situation still poses more questions than answers, with only the perpetrators and, possibly, the victims fully aware of what transpired. Details should emerge in the coming days, but Pennington said businesses should expect more attacks, no matter the veracity of the Pastebin claims. "It's probably going to get worse before it gets better," he said.