DDoS Activity in the Context of Hong Kong’s Pro-democracy Movement

November 11, 2014 Kirk Soluk

In early August, we examined data demonstrating a striking correlation between real-world and online conflict [1], which ASERT tracks on a continual basis [2-7]. Recent political unrest provides another situation in which strong correlative indicators emerge when conducting time-series analysis of DDoS attack data.

The latest round of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong began on September 22nd when “. . . Students from 25 schools and universities go ahead with a week-long boycott to protest Beijing’s decision to proceed with indirect elections for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive position.” [8]. The protests ramped up on September 28th when a larger pro-democracy group, Occupy Central with Love and Peace, combined forces with the student demonstrators [8-9]. On October 1st, protesters vowed to increased the level of civil disobedience if Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Leung Chun-Ying, did not step down [10].  Since that time, tensions have increased, with police crackdowns, tear gas, barricades, skirmishes, shutdowns of government buildings and infrastructure, and heavy use of social media to promote both pro-and anti-protest sentiment.  By examining Arbor ATLAS Internet-wide attack visibility data we have identified DDoS attack activity in the APAC region which correlates strongly with the ebb and flow of protest activity in Hong Kong.

Arbor’s ATLAS Initiative

The DDoS information provided in the remainder of this report is derived from Arbor’s ATLAS Initiative. Arbor ATLAS receives anonymized Internet traffic and DDoS event data from over 290 ISPs worldwide which have deployed Arbor’s DDoS Mitigation solutions.  While many observed events are symptomatic of attacks during this period, it is important to note that we cannot definitively identify the motivations behind any given event.

Hong Kong as a Target of DDoS Attacks (September-October)

Number of Observed DDoS Attacks

The following graph illustrates that the number of observed DDoS attacks targeting Hong Kong-related online properties more than doubled between September and October, from 1,688 discrete attacks in September to 3,565 attacks in October:

Figure 1: Total Number of Attacks Targeting Hong Kong (September and October, 2014)

Figure 1: Total Number of Attacks Targeting Hong Kong (September and October, 2014)

Although the sheer number of DDoS attacks increased significantly from September to October, there was not a significant difference with respect to other attack attributes such as size or duration.  For example, the following charts break out the percentage of DDoS attacks within a given size range for both September and October, along with the raw number of DDoS attacks in that size range:

Figure 2: Percentage of Attacks within a given Size Range

Figure 2: Percentage of Attacks within a given Size Range

Overall, the percentage of DDoS attacks within a given size range remain fairly consistent from September to October, with the biggest difference being a relative 4% decrease in the number of DDoS  attacks within the 2gb/sec-to-5gb/sec range.

In summary, the analysis of the number and size of Hong Kong-related DDoS attacks depicted by Figures 1 and 2 above can be summed up by stating that “October saw more of the same – a lot more!

Size of Attacks and Related News Events

Figure 3 illustrates the largest DDoS attacks per day, in terms of bandwidth, targeting Hong Kong-related online properties during the month of October:

Figure 3: Peak Attack Sizes per Day (Gbps)

Figure 3: Peak Attack Sizes per Day (Gbps)

Three large DDoS attacks on October 14th (45.4gb/sec), 17th (38.3gb/sec), and 19th (45.6gb/sec) stand out. The total number of observed DDoS attacks targeting Hong Kong-related online properties (289, 419, and 427 respectively) also peaked on these days.  Since the vast majority of DDoS events reported via ATLAS are anonymized, it cannot be definitively determined how these specific DDoS attacks were related to the ongoing protests.  However, it appears that these attacks coincide with reports on Twitter and  by the Wall Street Journal of anti-protest crowds attempting to physically prevent pro-democracy newspaper publisher Apple Daily from distributing its newspapers. Specifically, the Journal noted that Apple Daily “simultaneously faced a cyberattack that brought down its email system for hours” [11]. On October 14th, Computerworld Hong Kong quoted an employee from Next Media (Apple Daily’s parent company), as follows: “The network was a total failure, affecting not just Apple Daily, but all the publications under Next Media” [12].

What’s Next?

Based on in-region DDoS attack statistics for the first week of November, continued DDoS attacks on Hong Kong-related Internet properties appear to be taking place. The following graph illustrates peak DDoS attack sizes in the 30gb/sec-plus range on four consecutive days (November 3rd – 6th):

Figure 4: Peak Attack Sizes per Day (Gbps) in the first week of November

Figure 4: Peak Attack Sizes per Day (Gbps) in the first week of November

Conclusion

While establishing definitive causal relationships and attribution are challenging  it is apparent that DDoS attacks have become the ‘new normal’ during periods of political unrest worldwide. In this case, we observed a 111% increase in the number of DDoS attacks targeting Hong Kong-related Internet properties when analyzing the months immediately before and after protester demands, on October 1st, for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive to step down. Additionally, large-scale DDoS attacks were observed targeting Hong Kong-related Internet properties that coincide with reports of debilitating disruptions of online media outlets sympathetic to the protest movement.

References

[1] http://www.arbornetworks.com/asert/2014/08/ddos-and-geopolitics-attack-analysis-in-the-context-of-the-israeli-hamas-conflict/

[2] http://www.arbornetworks.com/asert/2007/12/political-ddos-ukraine-kasparov/

[3] http://www.arbornetworks.com/asert/2013/05/estonia-six-years-later/

[4] ASERT Threat Intelligence Brief 2013-5: Observed Syrian Cyber Adversary Capabilities and Indicators. Available to Arbor customers upon request.

[5] ASERT Threat Intelligence Brief 2013-7: The Impact of Protest Activity on Internet Service in Thailand. Available to Arbor customers upon request.

[6] ASERT Threat Intelligence Brief 2013-4: Potential Targeted Attacks Against Various International Interests. TLP Amber. Available to Arbor customers upon request.

[7] ASERT Threat Intelligence Brief 2014-04: Counter Terrorism Expo and Bulgarian State Agency for National Security Cyber-Threat Alert. TLP Amber. Available to Arbor customers upon request.

[8] http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/1015132-hong-kong-occupy-central-time-line-of-key-umbrella-movement-events/

[9] http://www.scmp.com/topics/occupy-central

[10] http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/10/01/hongkong-china-idUSL6N0RV5F920141001

[11] http://online.wsj.com/articles/hong-kongs-press-under-siege-1413330960

[12] http://cw.com.hk/news/next-media-under-cyberattack-and-operations-disruption

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