Google unveils toolkit to stop online oppression

Google will use its massive network of data centers to defend small companies from DDoS attacks.

Google used a New York City summit to announce a suite of new services to help political activists, small businesses and non-profits defend themselves against crippling denial of service (DoS) attacks.

The company unveiled three new projects funded by its Google Ideas think tank: Project Shield, a new service (available on an invite-only basis) to protect small web operations from massive, distributed denial of service attacks. A related service: Digital Attack Map provides realtime data on DDoS activity worldwide. A third tool, uProxy, is a browser extension created in cooperation with The University of Washington and Brave New Software that creates a peer-to-peer style network to provide trusted pathways to the web.

Google used the "Conflict in a Connected World" summit in New York City as a stage for its announcements. That event was co-sponsored by Google with the Council on Foreign Relations and the Gen Next Foundation. Project SHIELD makes use of Google's Page Speed Service, the same technology the company uses to accelerate the performance of its own Web site, and to protect itself from DDoS attacks. The service re-writes web pages to merge and compress Java Script, style sheets and other elements to optimize performance. Also, the service leverages Google's massive, global infrastructure to serve content efficiently. Companies that are accepted into the SHIELD beta program will be enrolled in the Page Service program, Google said.

The Digital Attack Map tool for tracking DDoS incidents was produced in cooperation with the security firm Arbor Networks provides real-time data visualization of global DDoS attacks and their content.

In a post on the official company blog by Jared Cohen, the Director of Google Ideas, the company said the tools will help protect the integrity and confidentiality of Internet activity in an age that is increasingly characterized by strong-arm online tactics by governments, militaries and cyber criminal groups.

The growing frequency and strength of DDoS attacks is due to a steep increase in the size and accessibility of "botnets" of infected systems, said Shuman Ghosemajumder, the Vice President of Strategy at the firm Shape Security and a former Google executive in charge of managing the company's efforts to thwart click fraud. That, coupled with the rapidly falling price of renting such services in the cyber underground has made massive, botnet fueled DDoS attacks the norm, he said. 

"You have sophisticated tools and malware that can be used by completely unsophisticated cybercriminals for $1.00 or $150 an hour," he said.

Google's uProxy addresses widespread concerns about government filtering and surveillance in the wake of revelations about National Security Agency (NSA) spying by Edward Snowden, a former US government contractor, and efforts by governments in China, Russia and other nations to stifle online dissent.

"Information technologies have transformed conflict in our connected world, and access to the free flow of information is increasingly critical," Cohen wrote."This week's summit, as well as Shield, the Digital Attack Map and uProxy, are all steps we're taking to help those fighting for free expression around the globe."

The announcements come as data from the security firm Arbor Networks and Prolexic suggest that the incidence of massive denial of service (DOS) attacks is increasing. Arbor announced today that data from its Atlas monitoring program showed that the average DDoS attack size has swelled throughout 2013. For the last 3 months, Arbor consistently found attacks in the 3-3.5Gbps range, compared to an average attack size of 1.48Gbps of data in 2012.

Prolexic, another firm that secures web sites from DDoS attacks, said that the third quarter was its busiest ever, with the highest ever number of attacks for one quarter against Prolexic clients. The company recorded a 265 percent increase in so-called DDoS reflection attacks in the third quarter compared with the same quarter a year ago, while the number of DDOS attacks increased 58 percent compared to Q3 2012.

The last year brought news of the largest known DDoS attack to date: a 300Gbps tidal wave that knocked Spamhaus, an spam blacklisting organization, offline in March. No attacks came close to that in Q3, though Arbor said it recorded a 191 Gbps attack in August - an attack that was "still pretty remarkable."

The new offering could bring inexpensive DDoS protections to a wide swath of the Internet who hasn't known about them, or felt the need wasn't there, said Ghosemajumder of Shape Security. Still, there are limitations: Google Shield may deter rank and file criminals, but dedicated advesaries will switch to more complex tools for disabling web sites that  to circumvent the Shield protections, he said.  

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