went offline for an hour early this morning in a suspected cyber-attack. The Swedish arm of hacktivist collective Anonymous has been fielding questions via Twitter about the incident and refused to confirm its involvement, despite retweeting a warning late last night that 'OpIreland' was about to take place. It also hinted that the groups preferred method, distributed denial of service attacks, would be used.
Another tweet from the account @youranonnews said "Ireland has angered the hive" and linked OpIreland to OpMegaupload - a separate action aimed at defending Megaupload co-founder Kim Dotcom, currently under arrest in New Zealand pending extradition to the US for his role in the popular file-sharing website (since taken offline).
As part of the protest the mobile phone number of Junior Minister TD Sean Sherlock, who is seeking to introduce a statutory instrument aimed at stamping out illegal filesharing, was published on the Web, along with the office numbers of various government TDs.
The Department of Justice released a statement in which it sought to clarify the nature of the attacks, in light of recent data breaches.
"This is not an attempt to extract information from the website but is instead an attempt to stop access to a service. There appears to be no damage done to the website," said the statement.
A review is underway, the department said, and the situation is being monitored.
"The Government is aware of the potential threat of this type of cyber attack and the Department of Communications is coordinating a whole of Government response to this threat," the statement concluded.
It is thought that the attacks were in retaliation for the Government's stance in adopting anti-piracy legislation of the same type that has now been roundly condemned as flawed and unworkable in the United States.
The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), as it was known in the US, would have allowed the copyright owners to request search providers, online payment services and internet service providers (ISP) to effectively erase a site from the Internet if the suspect site was reported to give access to copyrighted material. While this may not sound unreasonable, the detail which drew near universal condemnation was that the process would have taken place without any court review or judicial approval. In fact many critics said that vague and unspecific language in the legislation would have meant that the copyright owners could have made the same take down requests for sites linking to sites with alleged copyright material.
With its original sponsors deserting the bill after mass protests, both on and offline, it was regarded as essentially defeated in the US.
It was something of a surprise then, when the Irish Government indicated its intention, through Junior Minister at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise Innovation, Sean Sherlock, to adopt a SOPA-like bill itself. The Irish bill does require requests for blocking access to go through the courts, but critics say that the draft legislation does not make clear whether the sites to be blocked will be notified or have a right to be heard.
With the same outcry from Irish citizens as was seen in the US, the SOPA-like proposals have been roundly condemned. It is believed that the attacks on the Government web sites were a perpetrated by the hacktivist group Anonymous, and were a direct retaliation for the proposed legislation.
Security expert Brian Honan, CEO of BH Consulting, pointed out that the modus operandi of such groups is usually to make a probing attack to test the defences of sites and that last night's attacks may simply be a precursor to a more intense action. Honan referred to what has been seen as a possible "warning shot."
With normal service now resumed for both government sites, many will be watching closely to see if the Anonymous group makes good on its previous form with more organised and effective actions against Irish government sites.
In the meantime, opposition to the Irish SOPA-like legislation grows. IT law expert TJ McIntyre wrote in a blog post that "Anonymous attacks on Ireland will hurt, not help the case against blocking."
McIntyre's site provides a FAQ on the draft legislation for site blocking here.
UPDATE: As of 12:30 25 January, Sean Sherlock's site, seansherlock.ie has been taken offline by a denial of service attack.
"Database Connection Failed
Error: User seansher_sherloc already has more than 'max_user_connections' active connections (1203)" reads the error message being displayed when trying to load the site.
The attack was declared at 12:21 via a Twitter posting:
"#breaking Reported ships sighted on #IRELAND MR.#irishSOPA ships are targeting http://t.co/FL9zsUUK #OpIreland" from the user account @AnonOpsSweden.
UPDATE: As of 12:39 25 January, www.seansherlock.ie appears to have resumed normal service begging questions about either the determination or the capabilites of hacktivists involved.
UPDATE: 12:45 Reports are now coming via Twitter of justice.ie under attack again.
Paul Hearns and TechCentral Reporters