Dubai: The website of Sharjah based Al Khaleej newspaper was hacked by Iranian nationalists early yesterday, in what is being considered the first such attack on a Gulf website.
The attack, believed to have originated from two locations in Iran, took place around midnight yesterday, and the website was restored within an hour, Al Khaleej consultant Dr Khalid Abdullah told Gulf News.
"I believe they targeted Al Khaleej because of some of the positions the paper has taken, and because of its prominence in the region," he said. Al Khaleej is one of the UAE's oldest and highest circulated newspapers.
"As far as I know, this is the first time a prominent Gulf site has been attacked by Iranian nationalists," he added.
The main page of the newspaper's website was replaced with a replacement page carrying a political message and picture. The text on the site read: 'The correct name is Persian Gulf, which always has been, and will always remain, Persian.'
Below it was an image that seemed like the hacker's trademark, carrying his name before a map of Iran, with the Arabian Gulf labelled as "Persian".
Most Arabs refer to the body of water between the Arabian Peninsula and Iran as the Arabian Gulf.
Iran disputes this, saying that it has been historically known as the Persian Gulf. Most news organisations based in the Arab world also refer to the Gulf as Arabian, while Hezbollah's Al Manar satellite channel refers to it as 'the Gulf'.
The issue is often taken up by the Iranian government. It banned the sale of a National Geographic atlas for referring to the Gulf as 'Arabian' until it was changed.
Various Western media continue to refer to it as the 'Persian Gulf' while some simply call it 'the Gulf'.
Dr Abdullah said the web coordinator at Al Khaleej noticed the infiltration as he was posting the latest news. "We started working on it immediately and the website was functional within an hour," he said.
Not the first
Al Khaleej is not the first UAE newspaper to face 'hacktivism' as Gulf News' own website was hacked by an Israeli group in June 2001.
An investigation by Gulf News' IT experts traced the hackers through US sites to computers linked to Israel's internet service provider Netvision. It was part of a larger 'cyber war' between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian hacker gangs.
The hackers left the message "You have been hacked...Long live Israel...You were owned by Senodyne." An Israeli flag was also placed on the website.
Hacktivism on the rise
Internet users in the Middle East are being urged to take precautions against a disturbing new trend of cybercrime - hacktivism - which, according to recent findings, is on the rise.
Best explained as a combination of 'hacking' and 'activism', hacktivism is the act of hacking into a URL or IT system in order to communicate a politically or socially motivated message.
Trend Micro's own research shows that global, political and social events, such as the Beijing Olympics, are leading to an increasing volume of hacktivism attacks originating within the region, as well as penetrating local networks from external sources.
Unlike the traditional hacker, whose motives are usually financial or anarchistic in nature, the hacktivist performs the same kinds of disruptive actions in order to draw attention to a political or social cause. Hacktivism is the latest form of civil disobedience and protest.
The most notable incident of hacktivism occurred in Estonia in 2007 where Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks against government and corporate websites created a worldwide realisation of the very real threat of 'cyber' attacks and the potentially devastating impact they could have on state infrastructure.
TrendLabs, Trend Micro's Threat Research Division, documented occurrences of hacktivism during the recent social and political unrest in China where hackitivists unsuccessfully launched a DDoS attack on CNN as a protest against coverage deemed as 'pro-Tibet'.
Though no proof was established regarding the connection between the anti-CNN movement and the supposed hacking incident, investigators believed that the online attacks supposedly go hand-in-hand with street protests, creating a synchronised protest in the real and digital worlds.
"Hacktivism could bring about large economic losses as well as potentially severe damage to the national infrastructure," said Ian Cochrane, Marketing Manager, Trend Micro Middle East and Africa.