Throughout Tuesday and into Wednesday, many of the hacked sites remained unavailable or intermittently accessible, as a battle unfolded between hackers and site owners, with each attempting to wrest control from the other by adjusting the domain name system (DNS) settings for the hacked sites. Website disruptions varied geographically, complicated by DNS registries in different parts of the world receiving updates at different intervals.
The affected domain names were all registered through Australia-based Melbourne IT, which confirmed Wednesday that its systems had been compromised by hackers. The company said Wednesday that it had restored the hacked DNS credentials, locked those records to prevent further changes, disabled the legitimate account credentials that hackers had used to access its systems, and continued to investigate the intrusion.
The hack attacks come as the United States and its allies -- including the Arab League, Australia, Britain, France, Italy, Saudi Arabia and Turkey -- debate launching a military intervention in Syria in response to a large-scale chemical attack last Wednesday in the suburbs of Damascus. The attack, which killed hundreds of people, has been attributed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, although the government has denied that allegation.
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Sean Sullivan, security advisor at F-Secure Labs, said the SEA's Tuesday hacks amounted to online "warning shots" directed at the United States. "Bottom line: if the United States launches a cruise missile at Syria ... there will definitely be a 'cyber' response," he tweeted Wednesday.
The SEA has previously hacked media outlets' websites and Twitter feeds for advancing what it sees as a negative view of the Syrian regime. Victims have included the Associated Press, CBS News, NPR, the BBC and satire site The Onion.
As of Wednesday morning, the SEA's own website remained unavailable, suggesting that it was the focus of a distributed denial of service attack.
The first signs of the SEA's Tuesday DNS hack campaign appeared when the Times website became unreachable. Shortly thereafter, Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said in a tweet that the website disruption "is most likely result of malicious external attack." The Times later released more details, although as of Wednesday morning its site -- and that article -- remained largely unreachable.
The Times website's DNS settings as well as some registration details were compromised by hackers Tuesday, with the "admin name" altered to read "SEA," address changed to "Syrian Arab Republic" and email changed to "firstname.lastname@example.org." Connecting directly to one of the Apache servers used by the Times returned a message that read "Hacked by SEA" before the connection was closed, the SANS Institute reported Tuesday.
The SEA Tuesday also claimed credit for the attacks via Twitter. "Hi @Twitter, look at your domain, its owned by #SEA :)" read one tweet, which linked to Whois details for the Twitter domain listing "SEA SEA" as the admin name. After compromising the DNS settings of the various websites, the SEA rerouted some website visitors to hacker-controlled servers, and may have also intercepted email and traffic heading to and from the affected domains. "All three domains use Melbourne IT as their domain registrar. Once access to the registrar is obtained, the SEA can redirect all DNS, email and Web traffic going to these sites to a server of their choosing," HD Moore, chief research officer at Rapid7, told Threatpost.