The World Conference on International Telecommunications (Wcit) meeting currently taking place in Dubai, UAE to discuss the future of Internet governance has been disrupted by a suspected hacking attack.
According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the UN’s telecommunications standard arm, its website was forced offline for about two hours on Wednesday, making it impossible for delegates to access materials relating to the meeting.
Hacker groups had claimed responsibility responding to claims that the meeting is “trying” to restrict freedom online, the ITU said.
“However, a spirit of camaraderie prevailed,” ITU said in a statement, adding that “with those who had access to up-to-date online versions of the texts willingly sharing with other delegates in order to keep discussions moving forward.”
ITU’s secretary general Hamadoun Toure said: “It is ironic that the very people who claim to be fighting for a free Internet are preventing those around the world trying to follow the event online from getting access.”
Given the disruption, network traffic was redirected to a backup website hosted in a different geographical region.
ITU later stated that “while further technical measures have been put in place today to ensure the online system continues to function, the Conference can revert to paper processing if necessary, to ensure discussions proceed according to the tight timetable set for negotiation of the new treaty.”
The suspected hacking attack comes after the World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly last month endorsed a new standard for deep packet inspection, a technique applied by telecom operators to outline the number of blocked or dropped calls that can as well be used to spy on individual customers by tracking the sites they visit and the amount of data they use.
Several agencies have since expressed concern over its approval including the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) arguing that the approved standardization of technologies “could give governments and companies the ability to sift through all of an internet user’s traffic – including emails, banking transactions, and voice calls – without adequate privacy safeguards.”
The non-profit organization whose mission is to promote free Internet said the move to approve the deep packet inspection indicates some “governments hope for a world where even encrypted communications may not be safe from prying eyes.”
The US later commented that the introduction of standardization had been a private sector initiative suggesting that it would oppose its application to monitor individuals as that would be “an invasion of privacy”.
The US ambassador to Wcit Terry Kramer said he was “very concerned” by the apparent hacking attack.
“There has been a big focus on transparency at this conference and the ITU has made all the main plenary discussions available via webcasting,” he said. “They’ve posted the proposals on their site. So taking that site down creates an impression that there isn’t transparency.”
The delegates at the Wcit have until Dec 14 to agree on which proposals to approve. Over 900 changes have been proposed to the ITU including proposals to block spam messages, cut mobile roaming fees and prioritize emergency calls.
The resultant treaty will be incorporated as part of international law. However, the ITU acknowledges that it has no legal mechanism to force countries to comply.
Some countries have expressed concern, accusing ITU of “secrecy” as it had left it upon individual countries to publish proposals instead of taking the responsibility to release them itself. Two sites – Wcitleaks and .nxt – have collated related documents from a range of sources although many remain unpublished.
Over 2,000 people are following the live and archived multilingual webcasts of the Wcit per session, with an extra Twitter exposure of close to 35 million people via the WCIT hashtags.