UK government websites are bracing themselves for an attack from Anonymous.
Failure to grant Julian Assange bail at a hearing due to take place on Tuesday could be enough to push pro-Wikileaks activists – who have already attacked Mastercard, Amazon, PayPal and Swedish prosecutors – into an assault on UK government systems.
Sir Peter Ricketts, the national security adviser, has warned government departments to be on their guard.
A spokesman for the prime minister confirmed the warnings and said concern was focused on sites run by Department for Work and Pensions, which holds personal information on benefits claimants, and HMRC, which holds taxpayer databases, The Telegraph reports.
Assange, who faces sexual assault charges in Sweden, was arrested last week and held on remand. Lawyers for the Wikileaks spokesman are due to present a second application for bail later on Tuesday.
If the application fails, activists from Anonymous may decide to attack UK government websites, the most obvious target being the Department of Justice. Even if the attack progresses towards flooding the websites of the DWP and HMRC with junk traffic, it's unlikely to do anything more than disrupt normal access for a few hours until a more deserving target is nominated.
Defending against DDoS attacks is not easy but fairly well understood. Having a distributed system helps, but the real key is filtering away useless junk traffic at the earliest opportunity, preferably deep into the back-end core of ISP systems.
Attack traffic generated by the LOIC site flooding tool favoured by Anonymous has a pattern which ought to allow systems to be tuned to discard it. One basic first step would be to restrict access to any targeted websites to the UK alone for the period of the attack.
As well as members of the loose-knit Anonymous collective downloading and using LOIC as a "voluntary botnet tool", there's evidence that some have access to botnets of already compromised PCs, which might be used to greatly increase the potency of any attack.
Whatever happens, we do hope politicians don't start describing any temporary disruption of government websites as an act of cyber-terrorism, or that the incident will end up being used to justify increased spending on government cyber-defence; but we fear we may end up disappointed on both counts. ®