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Explainer: What is the "Lizard Mafia" and how did they shut down social media?

Lizard Squad hacks Facebook, but who are these amphibians?

We all survived the great Facebook/Instagram/Tinder outage of the 27th January and we are now learning why it occurred.

The official line from Facebook was:

“Earlier this evening many people had trouble accessing Facebook and Instagram. This was not the result of a third party attack but instead occurred after we introduced a change that affected our configuration systems. We moved quickly to fix the problem, and both services are back to 100% for everyone.”

However, during and after the outage, we have repeatedly heard about a group who go by the name of the Lizard Squad and claims that they may have been responsible.

Who is this “Lizard Squad” you speak of?

For those who do not follow cyber security issues, the Lizard Squad are a group of “hackers for hire”.

This means they are computer wizards who are basically able to perform the equivalent of a break and enter but on major computer systems. They claim that the bulk of their attacks are paid for. That is, they don’t bring down huge international servers for their own purposes but at the request (and payment) of ‘clients’.

The Lizard Squad have a Facebook page and a twitter account. Yet their paid attacks are never announced on the group’s own social media feeds. They claim they are “professionals” who respect the privacy of the people and groups who use their services.

Cheat sheet: News of the World and phone hacking

They call themselves ‘DDoS for hire’, which means Distributed Denial of Service – computer speak for sending huge, huge, huge amounts of internet traffic to a single online service until it becomes overwhelmed and crashes.

Apparently, their services are quite popular.

Lizard Squad’s Twitter page

Were they responsible for bringing Facebook and Instagram down yesterday?

The group appear to have been responsible for the attack on the Sony Play Station Network at Christmas time, Xbox Live Network and in recent days claimed responsibility for an attack on the Malaysian Airlines Website which began showing pro ISIS slogans, along with an attack on singer Taylor Swift.

The Malaysian Airlines attack is particularly concerning as they claim to have taken customer details from the servers, which means it may be time to change credit cards if you have used that airline recently.

It is unclear whether the group managed to crash Facebook and Instagram yesterday. However they are certainly putting out sly communications that they did. This would be a huge technical feat given the sheer size and strength of the social media giants’ server capacity.

I’m confused. Take me back  step – what is a DDos attack?

It is an attempt to make an online service (website) unavailable by overwhelming it with traffic from multiple sources.

US Central Command hacked by Islamic State supporters.

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Imagine a switchboard in a business that is staffed and ready to respond to 500 phone calls a day and have maybe 20 people on the line at any one time. It suddenly receives 300,000 phone calls all at once. Sheesh.

You can actually buy (illegally) a DDoS attack on a website for about $150 on the online black market.

You can buy a DDos attack for about $150.

So how do they get the computing power to perform this?

Well, I hate to tell you this but you maybe helping them.

Attackers build networks of infected computers, known as ‘botnets’, by spreading malicious software through emails, websites and social media. Once your computer is infected, these computers can be controlled remotely, without the owners’ knowledge and used like an army to launch an attack against any target.

So if you have malware, virus infections on your computer and have trouble opening up traditional search engines or have pop ups appearing, the chances are that your computer maybe a botnet helping these attacks.

The hacker group ‘Anonymous’ are well known in the public domain.

Should we be concerned about websites being attacked and going offline?

Well, firstly this costs businesses money and through them, their shareholders. Facebook going down for an hour may have cost them $1.25 million dollars (based on their quarterly revenue).

Other businesses lose referral traffic from social media when those sites go down. This is because many businesses rely on Facebook to drive traffic to their own commercial properties.

When smaller sites from smaller businesses go down, as many do, it can be their livelihood.

Who wasn’t concerned about the attack yesterday? Twitter. Their traffic went up during the outage.

What just happened to Instagram and Facebook?

Secondly, this maybe just the beginning. We have seen over the last 12 months that these sort of attacks gain momentum with breaches of client’s information revealing credit card and personal details. The results have been serious; businesses like Sony have been brought to their financial knees by these cyber attacks.

We have seen the US military’s YouTube and Twitter accounts compromised, with data being dumped online on digital repositories for hackers and information dumpers from around the world. This could potentially have massive strategic, military and world security consequences.

It is not an overstatement to say that we may be witnessing the beginning of the first war fought online.

Footnote: In Australia if you are hacked and information is stolen, it is not a requirement for you to announce this to any authority as it is in the United States. The author believes it should be. You can read more about that here.

Richard Pascoe is a media commentator on technology.

Tags: facebook-2 , lizard-squad , news-3
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