NSA’s website goes offline. Human screw-up or DDoS attack?

Graham Cluley
Graham Cluley
@[email protected]

At the time of writing, the NSA’s website has been inaccessible for a few hours.

NSA website down

Inevitably suspicions have been raised that the site could have fallen victim to a distributed denial-of-service attack from hackers making a stand against the surveillance agency, or perhaps a peeved German Chancellor Angela Merkel is simply getting her own back.

nsa-down-170 But we shouldn’t forget that it’s equally possible that someone has screwed-up, or that a technical fault has teken the website offline.

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It shouldn’t be forgotten, of course, that a DDoS attack is a very rudimentary way of striking at a website – and nothing like as serious as if an organisation’s website was compromised, or information stole from a company’s servers.

If it *is* a DDoS attack though, the timing perhaps wouldn’t be surprising. After all, the NSA has a high profile in the news right now.

This weekend, a rally against mass surveillance is taking place this weekend in front of Union Station, Washington, D.C. having gained the support of internet celebrities like Tim Berners-Lee and more traditional Hollywood stars such as Maggie Gyllenhaal and John Cusack.

Stop Watching Us: The Video

To underline what I hope should be obvious – I am in no way suggesting that the organisers of the rally are connected in any way with the NSA website downtime.

Is the NSA’s website disruption due to DDoS-attacking hackers orchestrating a botnet? I think the jury is out, and we shouldn’t rush to jump to that conclusion until the agency itself shares some details publicly about what’s going on.

Update: Some, as the following tweet shows, suggest that the problem is down to a DNS change.

Update 2: The NSA has now issued a statement, reported by ABC News, confirming that they were not the victim of a DDoS attack but instead suffered from an “internal error”:

“NSA.gov was not accessible for several hours tonight because of an internal error that occurred during a scheduled update,” the spy agency said in an emailed statement. “The issue will be resolved this evening. Claims that the outage was caused by a distributed denial of service [DDoS] attack are not true.”

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Graham Cluley is a veteran of the cybersecurity industry, having worked for a number of security companies since the early 1990s when he wrote the first ever version of Dr Solomon's Anti-Virus Toolkit for Windows. Now an independent analyst, he regularly makes media appearances and is an international public speaker on the topic of cybersecurity, hackers, and online privacy. Follow him on Twitter, Mastodon, Bluesky, or drop him an email.

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