VATICAN CITY — The hacking group Anonymous made a successful attempt to temporarily take down several of the Vatican’s websites yesterday, but the pages are now all back online.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi acknowledged to the Register that the Vatican website “has been attacked” but would not say any more. Italy’s postal and communications police were informed March 7 around noon local time that several of the Holy See’s websites were being targeted, disabling them for a few hours in the afternoon.
The cyber siege was reported to have breached a number of firewalls, each named after biblical prophets or the archangels Michael, Raphael and Gabriel. All its webpages are now back to normal.
The Pope and the Pontifical Council for Social Communications have consistently exhorted the faithful to make best use of the Internet and other modern communication technologies in spreading the Gospel.
As well as embracing digital social media, last year the Vatican set up a new aggregator site (News.va). The site, which brings together all the news coming from the Holy See, is about to launch a new French-language edition. And, in January 2012, the Holy See co-launched an online database designed to allow clergy around the world to share information on eradicating the problem of clerical sex abuse.
Italian members of Anonymous issued a statement on a blog March 7 saying the attack was an act of revenge for a variety of outrages, including clerical sex abuse and the long-past practice of selling indulgences for sins.
The cyber onslaught came just a day after six of the group’s alleged leaders were charged by the FBI with waging a “deliberate campaign of online destruction, intimidation and criminality.”
Alleged to be members of smaller hacking groups called LulzSec, Internet Feds and AntiSec, the six are accused of having been behind cyber attacks on the websites of major companies and world governments and the theft of confidential data. Before yesterday’s attack, Anonymous reportedly targeted the FBI, the White House and the Justice Department, and briefly knocked dozens of sites offline.
Internet security experts say any hacker appears to be allowed to operate under the Anonymous umbrella. The group describes itself as “a decentralized network of individuals focused on promoting access to information, free speech and transparency.” It says it has made international headlines by exposing the Church of Scientology, supporting anti-corruption movements in Zimbabwe and India, and providing secure platforms for Iranian citizens to criticize their government.
Responding to the attack, one Vatican official close to the Internet section said “this was a big one” and that the Holy See is increasingly concerned about cyber attacks, as they are “becoming more widespread.” But he noted that this particular strike didn’t cause major disruption, as the sites were back online within a few hours. “I’m more worried about big companies and other organizations that hold credit-card information or other confidential details — it’s a bigger headache for them,” the official said.
Speaking last May to a group of Catholic bloggers, Msgr. Lucio Ruiz of the Vatican’s Internet department, revealed that the Holy See “gets a lot of attacks from hackers” and that on one occasion two million computers attacked the Vatican’s website at the same time. “We had to work all night to resolve the situation,” he said, adding that both Italy’s Internet police and Interpol were also involved. “We have to cooperate with a lot of law enforcement agencies every day,” he said.
A large group of hackers also searched for vulnerabilities on a Church website in an unsuccessful bid to bring it down last August. The attack was meant to coincide with the World Youth Day celebration taking place at that time in Madrid.
In comments to Catholic News Service last week, an American religious sister in charge of the event’s website said they were aware of the attack.
“We prepared all the necessary infrastructure to secure the website, removing all possible security holes,” Servant Sister Kristen Gardner said. “We were able to block the IPs (Internet protocols) from which the attack was coming. The day with the most attacks was Thursday, Aug. 18” — the day the Pope arrived in Madrid.
The Vatican’s main website is now in its 16th year and is “very expensive to maintain,” according to Msgr. Lucio. It is also currently undergoing a renovation of its 5,000 or so pages.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.