Thursday, July 9, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Hackers Assume Larger Role in Russia’s Online ‘Religious Wars’

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 9 – Hacker attacks against sites maintained by political opponents of the Russian government have received a great deal of attention, but increasingly, hackers are turning their attention to Runet sites operated by religious groups, a reflection of the importance of the Internet in Russian religious life and of the ability of hackers to get away with such crimes.
In an article in today’s “Novya izvestiya,” Mikhail Pozdnyaev says that among those who have suffered from hacker attacks are “representatives of all confessions, official and independent information agencies which write about religious news, and popular missionaries” (
Because of the diversity of sites and the difficulties involved in determining why a site may have failed and in tracking down those responsible, there are no reliable statistics available on just how widespread this trend is. And consequently, the “Novaya izvestiya” journalist describes some of the more high profile cases of this particular plague.
Pozdnyaev begins with the hacker attack on the official site of the Maykop and Adygey eparchate of the Russian Orthodox Church this past Sunday. For several hours, he reports, visitors to the site found a page that had nothing to do with religious affairs, but the eparchate’s technical staff was able to restore the site more or less quickly.
Officials in the eparchate told Pozdnyaev that they believe that this attack happened when it did because at least some of the faithful are unhappy that Archbishop Panteleimon has been replaced as head of the see by Bishop Tikhon. The hackers, these officials believe, were supporters of Panteleimon.
But exactly who carried out the hacking remains unknown in this case, as in others even when the hackers declare themselves, as happened earlier this year, to be representatives of the “ Free Radical Society of Atheists of Bobruisk” or the “Atheist from Shenkursk,” names that after all are only screen names that conceal more than they reveal.
A much larger hacking scandal occurred during the controversy over now dethroned Bishop Diomid and his challenge to the Moscow Patriarchate. Twice the “Orthodoxy in the Far East” portal that featured information on his case was hacked, once with the attackers posting pornographic pictures and another time with foul language.
The priest who oversees that portal said that the hackers were people who supported Diomid and had enough resources to overcome the portal’s defenses. Since then the Interior Ministry’s Bureau of Special Technical Measures has tracked down the individual involved: he is a citizen of one of the CIS countries, it reports.
Russian prosecutors are seeking to bring this person to justice, the journalist says, but they have not had much luck. And that highlights a serious problem: because hackers can act with impunity, ever more of them are likely to get involved in “religious internet wars.” After all, Pozdnyaev notes, “catching a hacker is harder that restoring a site that has been attacked.”
Other victims of religious hacking have been the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the official site of the Patriarchate itself following the death of Aleksii II, and, an independent religious news portal that is often highly critical of the Orthodox Church.
Hacker attacks against websites maintained by the Russian Orthodox Church, its various subdivisions and even individual clerics like Archdeacon Andrey Kurayev are a relatively new phenomenon, but such attacks have been taking place against Islamic sites on a regular basis for a decade.
At the end of June, hackers took off line for a brief period two of the most important Russian-language Islamic news sites, and, both of whom have been subject to similar attacks in the past. Pozdnyaev says that it is possible the hackers are people who “do not share the loyal attitude” of these sites to the government.
That is certainly possible, but given the nature of the Internet, it is also possible that these attacks and others like them are either the result of the spread of a hacker subculture in Russia as Internet use increases or the consequence of decisions by government bodies there or institutions beyond Russia’s borders that do not approve of something a particular site has posted.

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