By Ezra Fieser / ISH
Central American governments, politicians and corporations are increasingly coming under attacks from activists who use the Internet to deface websites and disable networks, cyber security experts said.
Loosely affiliated groups, many of which identify themselves as a branch of the worldwide hacktivist group “Anonymous,” have ramped up the number and breadth of attacks in the region, most often targeting politicians and governments.
In the last two years, hacktivists – a label that combines the terms hacker and activist – have disabled the Guatemalan congressional website, attacked the websites affiliated with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and organized a sustained online campaign against cyber security laws in Costa Rica, among other incidents.
The organizations, which boast several thousand followers on their Facebook and Twitter accounts, have relied primarily on denial of service attacks and, to a lesser extent, on defacing websites. In denial of service attacks, the groups target a website and take it offline, usually by overloading its servers or by sending excessive number of requests, thereby flooding the network.
But groups are becoming more sophisticated in their approaches, said Alonso Ramírez, the cyber security manager for Central America and the Caribbean for Deloitte & Touche, a U.S.-based company that assists clients primarily with audits, financial advisory, tax and consulting.
“2013 will be a year in which organizations must take charge of their safety … as hackers seek new tricks to manipulate information,” he wrote in a report for the company.
Ramírez said governments and corporations must pass new legislation that guarantees the security of personal information, take steps to secure credit and debit cards, offer higher education degrees and tracks to study cyber security, and utilize new online security measures.
“Companies and public institutions undoubtedly need to take strategic action to protect information and prevent crime, threats with potentially substantial consequences,” Ramírez wrote.
Hacktivists in the region have not targeted a particular political ideology except in Nicaragua, where the group Anonymous in that country continually has campaigned against President Daniel Ortega. In a YouTube video, for example, the group threatened to protest Ortega’s controversial re-election campaign.
More common than politically motivated attacks, the groups unite around opposing laws perceived as trying to censor the Internet. They also are generally distrustful of governments, organized religions, corporations and figures of authority.
In a YouTube video announcing a planned, upcoming attack in El Salvador, the group Anonymous in that country said, “We’re not in favor of any political party.”
The announcement is made with a voice over and the likeness of the Guy Fawkes mask, a symbol Anonymous groups across the globe have adopted. In the announcement, the group says it attacks governments and agencies that it deems are acting against the best interest of the people.
E-mails sent to the group from Infosurhoy.com requesting comments were not answered.
Anonymous groups in six Central American countries, from Guatemala to Panama, range in size, support and their level of activity. They rely on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook to publicize their messages.
Anonymous in Guatemala, for example, boasted more than 20,000 likes on Facebook, while Anonymous in Nicaragua had less than 3,500 as early June.
Experts, however, said the open nature of the organizations (anyone can claim to be a member) makes it difficult to estimate how many supporters they actually have.
While growing in size and level of sophistication, the Central American groups remain less well organized than their counterparts in other countries. A May report by the Organization of American States found that cyberattacks, a category that includes hacktivism and other types of attacks, are growing quickly throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
The report found that governments saw an 8% to 12% increase in the number of all types of cyberattacks from 2011 to 2012, with at least two countries witnessing a 40% increase in the number of attacks.
“Politically motivated hacking received widespread media attention in 2012 and information provided by the [countries] suggest that this form of cyber incident is indeed on the rise in the region,” the report stated. “Two countries reported coordinated cyber-attack campaigns in response to legislative initiatives to strengthen copyright enforcement and reform tax codes. In both cases, hacker forums became saturated with plans to launch large-scale cyberattacks on governmental infrastructure unless the bills were vetoed.”
Still, the report warns that governments and corporations must do more to protect themselves and citizens from cyber threats.
“Countries are moving in the right direction,” the report concluded. “Much work still needs to be done, however, to keep pace with those seeking to corrupt critical networks and abuse personal information.”