A group of computer hackers hijacked websites run by the Voice of America this week, sending its online traffic to an Internet website claimed to be run by the Iranian Cyber Army. The attack comes as the U.S. government is renewing its push to promote freedom in cyber space and as protests spread across the Middle East - some with the help of the Internet.
In a statement Tuesday, the Voice of America says the attack redirected traffic from numerous websites - including the international broadcaster's main site: voanews.com. Instead of seeing VOA's website, visitors saw a page with an anti-U.S. message addressing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and an Iranian flag along with an AK-47 assault weapon.
Large bolder letters read: "We have proven that we can."
The group claiming responsibility for the attack - the Iranian Cyber Army - is said to have ties to the Iranian government.
Cyber security expert Jeffrey Carr says the Iranian Cyber Army should be taken seriously. "There are a few hacker crews operating out of Iran that do have allegiances or ties with the Iranian government. The Iranian Cyber Army is one of them. They have a good skills set. These are not script kiddies [inexperienced hackers]," he said.
The Fars News Agency, which is closely affiliated with the Iranian government, praised the attack and said it was made in retaliation for what it called "false reports" about Iran.
The State Department recently launched a Twitter feed in the Farsi language. Iran has criticized the initiative and accused the United States of using the Internet to organize opposition forces.
In a speech on Internet freedom last week, Secretary of State Clinton made specific reference to Iran. "In Iran, the authorities block opposition and media websites, target social media and steal identifying information about their own people in order to hunt them down," she said.
It is unclear how the attack against the Voice of America was carried out. Industry experts note that the hackers who are behind the disruption most likely chose Monday to launch the attack because it was a U.S. holiday and most federal employees were not at work.
In late 2009, the Iranian Cyber Army claimed responsibility for an attack on Twitter, which was used widely by Iranian government opponents in post-election protests that year. Last year, the Iranian Cyber Army launched an attack on the Chinese search engine Baidu.
Both attacks were domain name system, or DNS attacks, like the one on VOA.
Cyber security expert Jeffrey Carr says attacks such as these should not to be taken lightly. "This type of an attack actually can be quite serious because if [hackers] have DNS access, they can collect your mail. They essentially can own your entire online presence," he said.
The Voice of America says no data have been lost or compromised and that most of the sites affected are returning to normal.