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Improving Technical Security 7 January 2017

Holiday DDoS Attacks: Targeting Gamers (Plus Five Things You Can Do)

By Ryan PolkDirector, Internet Policy

Over the past few years, a new tradition has emerged, the Holiday DDoS Attack.

While distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks happen throughout the year, some of the highest profile attacks occur during the holidays, when the most users will be impacted. Attackers may target online shopping sites to disrupt pre-holiday gift buying. Or they may attack voice over IP services, like Skype, which are used to talk to family members over the holidays. But gaming networks are most often targeted by DDoS attacks, as the end of year holidays usually bring many users online who are eager to try out their new games and systems. In December 2014 and 2015, both Sony’s PlayStation Network and Microsoft’s Xbox Live gaming networks experienced outages as a result of DDoS attacks, leaving users unable to access or play their games online.

On 23 December 2016, Steam, a digital distributions platform and multiplayer network for PC gaming, went offline for several hours. A group of hackers took credit for the outage, claiming they downed the service through a DDoS attack. Valve Corporation, the developer of Steam, did not publicly identify the cause of the outage. When the outage occurred, Steam was in its first day of its annual Winter Sale, which could have produced a large increase in legitimate traffic that could have overloaded their systems, but a DDoS attack is far more likely.

In each of these cases, thousands of average Internet users inadvertently contributed to these DDoS attacks through the participation of their unsecured and infected devices.

While DDoS attacks are annoying for the users impacted, they are incredibly expensive for the companies attacked. According to a study by Incapsula, a web security company, DDoS attacks cost companies an average of $40,000 an hour. For the Steam attack, the cost was likely much higher. The Winter Sale produces some of their largest revenues of the year. The attack’s timing just days before Christmas may have caused Valve Corporation to lose customers, who may have opted to buy their gifts from other companies when they could not access the Steam website. Some users may have lost some confidence in Steam, worrying that the attackers may have also stolen private customer data such as their billing information, and moved to a different service.

DDoS attacks work by flooding systems with seemingly legitimate traffic. The systems are overloaded, leaving legitimate users unable to access them. Since differentiating between illegitimate and legitimate traffic is difficult, DDoS attacks are hard to defend against. Defenders can attempt to block spoofed traffic, provision more bandwidth to counteract the increased traffic, or use other mitigation techniques.[1] However, if the DDoS attack is large enough, and especially if it is made up of unspoofed traffic from many sources, it can be difficult to mitigate. For this reason, DDoS attacks have become the weapon of choice for attackers looking to gain notoriety during the holiday season.

While it can be hard to mitigate a large DDoS attack, everyone can take actions to prevent them. DDoS attacks rely on networks (botnets) of infected devices (bots) to create the massive amounts of traffic necessary to overload systems. Without large numbers of bots, it is much harder for attackers to create large amounts of traffic, making attacks easier to mitigate. We can all take small actions to ensure that our devices do not double as bots. DDoS attacks can only truly be stopped if everyone does their part and protects their own devices. Until that happens, the holiday DDoS attack will remain a threat for years to come.

Five actions to protect your devices from becoming bots:

  1. Create and use strong passwords for all your devices. Do not use the default. This is especially important for smart devices, routers, and other devices with which you may not interact directly.
  2. Update your devices! Software is often patched to remove known vulnerabilities, greatly strengthening your defenses.
  3. Monitor your devices. If a device is acting strangely, investigate it. One example is bounced email messages. If email messages are not reaching their destination, your device could be infected and sending spam as a part of a botnet.[2]
  4. Run anti-virus scans and use other security tools to find and remove malicious software.
  5. Be careful to avoid infecting your devices. Avoid opening suspicious emails, attachments, or risky websites. Some anti-malware services include website security checks.


[1] Spoofed traffic is Internet traffic that is forged to look like it is from another source.
[2] For more specific tips for fighting spam, see our Anti-Spam Toolkit users page.

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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