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by Keir Thomas

Will DDoS attacks take over the Internet?

Feb 02, 20114 mins
Data and Information SecurityInternetSecurity

Forget tablet computers or smartphones. 2010 was the year of the distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, if network security outfit Arbor Networks is to be believed.

Forget tablet computers or smartphones. 2010 was the year of the distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, if network security outfit Arbor Networks is to be believed.

In its Network Infrastructure Security Report, published yesterday, it points out that DDoS attacks have increased by 1000 percent since 2005, when it began monitoring the situation. Last year’s biggest attack doubled in scale compared with 2009, with one attack in particular bombarding its target at 100 gigabits per second.

Arbor expects things to get worse this year. So could DDoS attacks become so significant that they’re a major bugbear for anybody with an online presence?

DDoS attacks work by overwhelming a Website or the infrastructure that leads to it with meaningless, rapid-fire bursts of data. It’s the equivalent of jamming a phone switchboard when too many people call in. However, often hundreds or even thousands of computers are involved in a DDoS attack. It’s quick and dirty but effective, and–if done right–Websites can be made inaccessible for however long the attack lasts.

Three things have occurred recently that implies DDoS attacks are going to get worse. The first is the Wikileaks protests last year, which galvanized even moderate Internet freedom supporters to protest using the Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC) hacker tool, by which coordinated DDoS attacks can be launched.

More worryingly, however, the Wikileaks fiasco has redefined DDoS attacks as a legitimate form of protest. Computing God Richard Stallman has gone on record saying DDoS attacks are “the Internet equivalent of a mass demonstration.” Stallman defines such “demonstrations” as being separate from hacking or cracking, and compares them with harmless demonstrations that temporarily closed down several British stores recently, in order to highlight corporate tax evasion.

In other words, if Gandhi were alive today, he’d be organizing DDoS attacks. However, modern-day Gandhis should be aware that DDoS attacks are illegal under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and can lead to jail time.

The second reason why DDoS could become an issue is that domestic Internet connections are becoming blazingly fast, making it easier to launch successful attacks, especially if botnets are involved. (Botnets are networks of innocent hacked computers that participate in hack attacks without their owners’ knowledge.)

For example, high-speed fiber optic Internet connections are becoming more common in the western world. Verizon currently offers 150Mbps connections for business. That’s an astonishing data rate unthinkable for small-scale connections just a few years ago. On its own any computer behind that connection could be a formidable denial of service attack agent, but can you imagine the effect if hundreds if not thousands of computers, each with a similar high-speed connection, were used to launch an attack? If fiber to the home and business become commonplace and cheap–as it undoubtedly will–this is sure to happen.

The third concern is the growth of mobile computing devices. Cell phone infrastructure is expanding at a rapid rate, essentially creating a second-tier wireless Internet. Speeds are getting faster too as 4G services are rolled out. There’s no reason why mobile devices can’t join in DDoS attacks launched by their desktop brethren.

However, of all the recent trends, this is the least concerning. Right now there have been no reports of phones or tablets being used to launch DDoS attacks, and the programmers behind operating systems such as Apple iOS and Google Android are working hard to keep it that way by building in security features. After all, they have the benefit of hindsight that wasn’t available to designers of the PC. However, hackers have consistently shown that where there’s a will, there’s a way.

It’d be terrific if IPv6, the new Internet routing technology that we’re going to switch to real soon now, had DDoS protection. However, although the new security systems in place with IPv6 offer protection against certain kinds of attack, it’s still a gloomy outlook. DDoS is still entirely possible.

Denial of service attacks have been popular for as long as the Internet has been mainstream, and have shown similar kind of growth patterns. However, it might just be that, through a combination of societal changes and domestic technology improvements, they’ve begun to evolve faster than we’re able to cope with.

Keir Thomas has been writing about computing since the last century, and more recently has written several best-selling books. You can learn more about him at and his Twitter feed is @keirthomas.