Timorese 'hacktivists' warn of revenge

From jeff.sallot@theglobeandmail.com
Date Sat, 28 Aug 1999 10:14:51 -0400

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The Globe and Mail, Saturday, August 28, 1999

Timorese 'hacktivists' warn of revenge
  Exiled resistance leader threatens to launch cyber attacks on Indonesian computer targets
By Jeff Sallot

Ottawa -- Timorese activists have threatened to shut down Indonesian
government and banking computer systems if the country's authorities crack
down on the East Timor independence movement. Jose Ramos-Horta, the exiled
leader of the Timorese independence movement, says international support
groups have offered the services of as many as 100 computer experts in
Canada, the United States and Europe who can attack and disable critical
Indonesian computers.

These volunteers are already creating new computer viruses, picking their
targets and devising strategies for cyber attacks, Mr. Ramos-Horta said in
a telephone interview from Australia.

"A group of computer hackers can bring more damage to Indonesia than an
entire battalion of resistance fighters in the country," he said.

But as Monday's United Nations-sponsored referendum on independence
approaches, computer-security experts and intelligence analysts are
debating whether the threat of computer chaos in Indonesia is credible or
simply a hyped bit of cyberspace psychological warfare.

"It is something the Indonesians would be foolish to ignore," says a
Canadian intelligence official who deals with computer security.

Whether Indonesia's most important governmental and financial systems
might be forced off line, and if so, for how long, will depend on how
sophisticated the attackers are and what countermeasures have been put in
place, the official said.

At the moment, these are unknowns and "you might not know these things
until it [an attack] has happened," he said.

Mr. Ramos-Horta said such an attack would be a non-violent form of protest
and the "moral equivalent of economic sanctions" that would target the
financial interests of hard-liners in the Indonesian government and
military who would like to thwart East Timor's independence drive.

"With a few taps on the keyboard, in just a few hours they [hackers] can
do a lot of damage," Mr. Horta said.

The Indonesian government is aware of this threat and has taken steps to
protect its systems, Hersindaru Wahyutomo, a spokesman for the Indonesian
embassy, said.

The Indonesians will not disclose what defensive steps they've taken.

If the Indonesians have been prudent -- by reinforcing electronic
firewalls, for example -- their critical systems are unlikely to be forced
off line for any length of time, if at all, says David Ronfeldt, a
researcher at the Rand Corp. in California who has studied how
international support networks used Internet technology to help the
Zapatista rebels in Mexico.

But even if they can't crash bank and government systems, so-called
hacktivist support groups might be able to swarm a public World Wide Web
site with so many hits or electronic pings that the site would be
overwhelmed for a short period.

Flood Net and other software written by hacktivist groups can send
automated reload requests to targeted Web sites every few seconds. The
effect of hundreds of computer users around the world using Flood Net on
the same target at the same time can create network gridlock at the target

Hackers might also be able to alter the text or appearance of Web pages,
the cyberspace version of vandalism. Even the public Web page of the
Canadian Security Intelligence Service has been temporarily altered, with
hackers changing the word "Intelligence" to "Illegal."

But these kinds of incidents are nuisances rather than serious threats to
important systems, Mr. Ronfeldt said in an interview. Governments don't
alter their policies and the value of national currencies are not
influenced by these embarrassments, he said.

But the threat of crashing key systems can cause alarm and draw media
attention to causes that hacktivists support, he said.

Lieutenant-Colonel Alan Smith, a senior officer in the Information
Operations branch of the Canadian Forces, respects hackers' power. A team
of experts from his branch crashed a number of military systems during an
exercise last year in a test for vulnerability.

Many hackers have the same capabilities to break into systems and bring
them down, he said. "It's a very credible threat that's out there."

An unclassified NATO report said there are hackers in at least 120
countries who can launch credible cyber attacks.

Systems can be protected to a large degree if they are segregated from the

But even physically segregating sensitive networks is no guarantee that
hackers working from abroad can't successfully attack Indonesia's
networks, said Winn Schwartau, an information-warfare consultant in the
United States.

East Timorese activists might easily recruit or bribe an insider who could
provide access to systems by divulging passwords, for example. And then it
would be easy to disrupt systems from remote locations, Mr. Schwartau

"It's happening all the time," even if banks or other institutions are reluctant to discuss it, he said.


  People: The majority of the 800,000 residents are indigenous. Others are
immigrants from neighbouring parts of Indonesia. The vast majority of East
Timorese are Roman Catholic, while most newcomers are Muslim.

    Geography: With an area of 14,500 square kilometres, East Timor is a
half-island territory lying 2,000 kilometres east of Jakarta. Its
coastline is framed by beaches, rocky cliffs and coral reefs. Its interior
is dominated by high and rugged mountains.

    History: Portugal abruptly ended 400 years of colonial rule in 1975.
In the political vacuum, East Timor's fledgling independent government was
immediately embroiled in a civil war with rival factions who supported
intervention by neighbouring Indonesia.

Indonesia invaded in December, 1975. A group of separatist guerrillas
fought against Indonesian troops. East Timor's Roman Catholic Bishop
Carlos Belo and exiled independence activist Jose Ramos-Horta shared the
Nobel Peace Prize in 1996.

After President Suharto's fall in May, 1998, Indonesia agreed to the
holding of a ballot supervised by the United Nations.

    Economy: Coffee is the main cash crop. If East Timor becomes
independent, it could lay claim to Indonesia's share of the Timor Gap oil
and gas field that lies between Timor Island and Australia.

    Ballot questions: East Timorese voters at home and abroad will be
asked two questions on the ballot:

"Do you accept the proposed special autonomy for East Timor within the
Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia?" or "Do you reject the
proposed special autonomy for East Timor, leading to East Timor's
separation from Indonesia?"

Ballot papers will be printed in four languages: English, Bahasa
Indonesia, Portuguese and Timor's Tetun dialect. They will be counted by
UN electoral officers.

Copyright 1999 The Globe and Mail

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