The attack on the infrastructure of the internet was a reminder about how billions of ordinary web-connected devices can be turned to vicious purposes.
WASHINGTON — When surveillance cameras first began popping up in the 1970s and ’80s, they were welcomed as a crime-fighting tool, and then as a way to monitor traffic congestion, factory floors and even baby cribs. Later, they were adopted for darker purposes, as authoritarian governments such as China’s used them to prevent challenges to power by keeping tabs on protesters and dissidents.
But those cameras — and many other devices that today are connected to the internet — have been commandeered for an entirely different purpose: as a weapon of mass disruption. The internet slowdown that swept large swaths of the U.S. on Friday, in a nation already jittery about the possibility that hackers could interfere with election systems, offered a glimpse of a new era of vulnerabilities confronting a highly connected society.
The attack on the infrastructure of the internet, which made it all but impossible at times to check Twitter feeds or headlines, was a reminder about how billions of ordinary web-connected devices — many of them highly insecure — can be turned to vicious purposes. And the threats will continue long after Election Day for a nation that increasingly keeps its data in the cloud and its head in the sand.
Remnants of the attack continued to slow some sites Saturday, though the biggest troubles had abated. Still, to the tech community, Friday’s events were as inevitable as an earthquake along the San Andreas fault. A new kind of malicious software exploits a long-known vulnerability in those cameras and other cheap devices that are joining up to what has become known as the “internet of things.”
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The advantage of putting every device on the internet is obvious. It means your refrigerator can order you milk when you are running low, and the printer on your home network can tell a retailer that you need more ink. Security cameras can alert your cellphone when someone is walking up the driveway, whether it is a delivery worker or a burglar. When Google and the Detroit automakers get their driverless cars on the road, the internet of things will become your chauffeur.
But hundreds of thousands, and maybe millions, of those security cameras and other devices have been infected with a fairly simple program that guessed at their factory-set passwords — often “admin” or “12345” or even, yes, “password” — and, once inside, turned them into an army of simple robots. Each one was commanded, at a coordinated time, to bombard a small company in Manchester, N.H., Dyn, with messages that overloaded its circuits.
Few have heard of Dyn, but it essentially acts as one of the internet’s giant switchboards. Bring it to a halt, and the problems spread instantly. It did not take long to reduce Twitter, Reddit and Airbnb — as well as the news feeds of The New York Times — to a crawl.
The culprit is unclear, and it may take days or weeks to detect it. In the end, though, the answer probably does not mean much anyway.
The vulnerability the country woke up to on Friday can be easily exploited by a nation-state such as Russia, which the administration has blamed for hacking into the Democratic National Committee and the accounts of Hillary Clinton’s campaign officials. It could also be exploited by a criminal group, which was the focus of much of the guesswork about Friday’s attack, or even by teenagers. The opportunities for copycats are endless.
The starkest warning came in mid-September from Bruce Schneier, an internet security expert, who posted a brief essay titled “Someone Is Learning How to Take Down the Internet.” The technique was hardly news: Entities like the North Korean government and extortionists have long used “distributed denial-of-service” attacks to direct a flood of data at sites they do not like.
“If the attacker has a bigger fire hose of data than the defender has,” he wrote, “the attacker wins.”
In recent times, hackers have been exploring the vulnerabilities of the companies that make up the backbone of the internet — just as states recently saw examinations of the systems that hold their voter registration rolls. Attacks on the companies escalated, Schneier wrote, “as if the attack were looking for the exact point of failure.” Think of the mighty Maginot Line, tested again and again by the German army in 1940, until it found the weak point and rolled into Paris.
The difference with the internet is that it is not clear in the United States who is supposed to be protecting it. The network does not belong to the government — or to anyone. Instead, every organization is responsible for defending its own little piece. Banks, retailers and social-media hubs are supposed to invest in protecting their websites, but that does not help much if the connections between them are severed.
The Department of Homeland Security is supposed to provide the baseline of internet defense for the United States, but it is constantly playing catch-up.
The head of the National Security Agency, Adm. Michael Rogers, said recently that experts were looking at the problem the wrong way. “We are overfocused on places and things,” he said in a talk at Harvard. “We need to focus on the data,” and how it flows — or doesn’t flow.