When Indian border guards tortured a poor Bangladeshi cowherd who had crossed territorial lines in December, the government of Bangladesh registered the official protest it typically does in these incidents, which are not uncommon.
But unusually, there was video footage of this incident, apparently taken by one of the guards, and it found a wide audience online in Bangladesh, heightening public anger. When the government in Dhaka played down the incident, patriotic young Bangladeshis took matters into their own hands, launching what they called a “cyberwar” aimed at official and commercial websites in India.
A loose network of Bangladeshi hackers claims to have hit more than 30,000 websites in the past 10 days, defacing them with Bangladeshi flags, images of Bangladeshi civilians killed or tortured by Indian border forces, and lists of demands for the Indian government.
The hackers claimed to have hit a number of “high value sites” including that of India’s national stock exchange – but those claims are overblown, say cybersecurity experts. It’s impossible to say precisely how many sites were hit, but The Globe and Mail has verified that the hackers did manage to deface some or take them down, for hours or days.
As the hackers claimed more and more “hits”, and Indian hackers began to hack back in retaliation, the “war” caught the attention of the Bengali media, much of which portrayed it as a bold civilian response in the absence of appropriate action from a government often seen as afraid of its much more powerful neighbour.
In fact, web experts say, this hacking war began three or four years ago and ticks along continuously, with the occasional flare-up like this, between Indians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis.
They are mostly young, mostly men, many with tech skills but a lack of employment and too much time on their hands, and they channel patriotic fever into hacking back and forth across the border. In this most recent battle, the Bangladeshis claimed to have had help from Saudi, Indonesian and Malaysian hackers; Israelis were reported to be helping out the Indians.
“This is not a targeted list of high-value sites; it’s more ‘spray ‘n’ pray’ – it’s known in the industry as random, opportunistic hacking,” said Sahir Hidayatullah, a director with Siegecraft, an Internet security firm in Mumbai that advises some of India’s largest businesses. “It’s typically performed by just mass-defacing any site that happens to be vulnerable and in the geography you’re trying to attack.”
The collective of hackers behind this most recent exchange of defacings includes groups calling themselves the “Bangladesh Cyber Army” and the Bangladesh BlackHat Hackers. But in the serious hacking world, they are known by a more derisive term: script kiddies.
In essence, they write a fairly simple program and launch it automatically to attack thousands of sites in an attempt to exploit a flaw and allow them to take over the appearance of the site. When they get lucky, they hit a server that hosts dozens or hundreds of websites, and can then override them all.
“Tens of thousands is par for the course for amateurs – if you hit fewer than that you really suck at it,” said Mr. Hidayatullah. This is not, in other words, hacking at the level of obtaining sensitive personal information such as credit card numbers.
Rohit Saristwa, who runs an Indian community of security aficionados called ClubHack, has been watching the Bangladeshi “war” and called it the work of young people with basic skills, giving a patriotic gloss to their successes.
“You’re not hampering government or an official body doing this,” he said. “You’re hampering a small business guy who doesn’t have money for a decent website.” The sites hacked include those of restaurants, wedding invitation makers and travel agencies.
The hackers themselves say they have more than achieved their aim. A member of the Bangladesh BlackHat Hacker group, which claims a lead role in this flare-up, told The Globe in an exchange of Facebook messages – the only medium through which he would agree to answer questions – that his group could “annihilate” the Indian government if it chose. But, he said, “our main intention here is to launch a protest that will end the border killing, and that is why we haven’t done any hard-core attacks. We are giving the Indian government a chance to respond … We don’t want to hurt India too much.”
He claimed the BDHH has more than 7,000 members, including one woman in its core membership, and that most range in age from 16 to 32 and are IT professionals as is he.
The media attention to the issue had won sympathy even from Indians, said the hacker, who identified himself by the handle “BdXtor”, adding that international actors statements are condemning the Indian border forces. So their goals are being achieved, he said.
These kinds of civilian nationalist hacking wars are increasingly common in any international conflict, according to Mr. Hidayatullah. It goes on constantly between North and South Korea, for example, and Israelis and Palestinians.
Aseem Jakhar, a founder of an Indian hacker network called Null, said the Bangladeshis are claiming to have shown that India has weak online security when in fact the sheer size of the software industry here means that the country has a large pool of programmers with security expertise.
This kind of war hurts goodwill, but not the country, he added, yet on the level of serious threats, at the level of government ministries, security is not nearly as strong as it should be because government has been much slower than the private sector to take the steps it should.
Mr. Hidayatullah agreed: “All the high-end things that actually matter have already been compromised by the Pakistanis and the Chinese.”
With files from Naushad Ali Husein in Toronto.
Editor's note: The original headline of this story incorrectly said the victim of the border torture had died.