A website set up to monitor secretive nuclear test facilities across the world — including in Russia, North Korea and Iran — was forced to take its servers offline after suffering a suspiciously-timed distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack.
The cyberattack targeted the 'Project on Crowdsourced Imagery Analysis' which is a satellite mapping campaign ran by the US-based Centre for Non-proliferation Studies (CNS). In a move that raised eyebrows, it came just two days prior to the North Korean nuclear tests on 9 September.
Despite only launching in May this year, the project has already hosted a number of illuminating satellite maps — including the Russian nuclear test site at Novaya Zemlya, the Iranian Shahrud missile test facility and multiple locations in North Korea — Sinpo Naval Shipyard and Punggye-ri.
The DDoS attack — which sent waves of internet traffic towards the website with the aim of taking it offline — eventually forced administrators to shut down the web server that was storing the centre's satellite imagery. No data was lost in the incident.
In the wake of the attack, hackers affiliated with both Russia and North Korea have been named as potential culprits — however blame is yet to be officially attributed. "It's suspicious timing," Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the CNS, told Wired.
"It's also really frustrating. We are restarting and our security company is looking into as much information about the attack," she continued. "We are going to get it up as soon as possible. I had hoped the forces of good could crowdsource and stop this kind of thing [...] it's frustrating when an actor can disrupt that for you."
While Hanham declined to comment on the identity of the culprit, Amazon Web Services (AWS) reportedly confirmed the web server was hit with a DDoS attack and that the outages were not the result of a technical problem within the centre's computers.
The CNS is a part of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, based in Monterey, California. Its satellite project aims to "harness the power of the crowd" to help interpret images of both known and suspected test sites with links to weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
"Satellite imagery used to be exclusively in the purview of the United States and the Soviet Union," the project's website states. "As the price of commercial satellite imagery comes down and the quality goes up, it has become a great equaliser. Now anyone with an internet connection has the opportunity to access imagery."
It continues: "We seek to connect experts of all stripes and backgrounds in a united goal to interpret, annotate, and debate the mysteries of satellite imagery in the service of WMD non-proliferation and disarmament."
In a move that has been condemned by the world's major governments, North Korea recently conducted its fifth nuclear weapons test in clear violation of multiple UN resolutions. The reclusive nation claimed to have mastered the ability to attach a nuclear warhead to a ballistic missile.
After the test, South Korea's military reported that a magnitude 5.0 earthquake was detected near the test site in north-eastern North Korea – which may, or may not, be directly related to the explosion. Most recently, South Korea's state media reported the country had completed preparations for yet another nuclear experiment.