The Massachusetts Maritime Academy was not the first cyber victim of an Islamic extremist group from Morocco. The group is believed to have hacked government websites in countries such as Italy, South Africa and Saudi Arabia. Such attacks are becoming more common.
This past week introduced many at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy to the extremist group Moroccan Islamist Union-Mail. But Robert Trestan and the Anti-Defamation League were familiar with them months before.
"When this particular group started hacking into sites during the Gaza conflict, we started looking at them," Trestan said. They’re fairly open and public about what they’re doing."
In July the group hacked the websites of Jewish congregations in Pennsylvania and Houston. Harvard University fellow Ryan Ellis researches cybersecurity issues and says such attacks are becoming common with many types of factions.
"It can range from social activism — which is important and valid — to criminal activity and vandalism," Ellis said. "You’re seeing more and more of it generally. So it’s not really all that surprising that, as tensions flare, and things that you’re gonna see, for example, groups with a political or ideological agenda turning to cyberspace as a way of getting their message out there."
And trying to protect against hackers isn’t easy, according to Ellis.
"The scale and scope of cyberspace is incredibly large," he said. "There’s a lot of possible targets to defend. There’s some technical features that also make it very difficult. The costs of security are far higher than the costs of attack."
It’s why, says Ellis, small institutions like the Maritime Academy might overlook such a scenario. Admiral Richard Gurnon, the academy’s president, says it was not on the school’s radar.
"We knew that it had some vulnerability, but we thought that the risk was very low," Gurnon said. "We’ve never been hacked before."
Trestan, who heads the Anti-Defamation League’s New England office, says having a strong website is critical to fending off attacks.
"A website that’s easier penetrate, they may be the first target," he said. "We advise Jewish institutions and all of the institutions that we provide security training for that’s it’s just as important to have secured doors and windows as it is to have a secure website."
Days after it was hacked, the website for the Massachusetts Maritime Academy is live again — but this time with stronger protection.