Serbian fact-checking service Istinomer files criminal complaint after serious hacker attack

Screen shot of Istinomer (Truth-O-Meter) front page on December 18, 2019. Fair use.

This article originally appeared on Istinomer (Truth-O-Meter), a fact-checking initiative of the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA). An edited version is published below as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Istinomer (Truth-O-Meter) is a Serbian media outlet focused on the fact-checking of statements by public officials and politicians, as well as analysis of important social and economic issues. It celebrated its 10th anniversary on December 10, 2019.

The editorial board of the Belgrade-based media outlet filed a criminal complaint against unknown perpetrators to the cybercrime department of the Serbian Ministry of Interior on December 17, 2019, reporting a massive DDoS attack carried out against its website on December 16, 2019, which hampered its functioning.

A DDoS or distributed denial-of-service attack is a malicious attempt to disrupt the normal functioning of a targeted server, service or network by overwhelming the target with a flood of internet traffic.

The attack started some minutes after 16.00 local time (CET), causing the Istinomer website to crash. The site was receiving 30,500,000 requests per hour generated from IP addresses supposedly originating in Brazil, Indonesia, Thailand, Russia, India, and other locations.

This was the second attack against Istinomer in the space of a few days. Several days prior, just before the scheduled celebration of the outlet's 10-year anniversary, the fact-checking service's web site was targeted by a cyberattack that disrupted its online poll “Lie of the Decade.”

The poll invited readers to vote on which of several claims made by politicians over the previous ten years constituted the most influential untruth. A day before the poll closed, a hacker attack resulted in the addition of 350,000 fake votes to the 10,000 actual ones submitted by users during the voting period.

In a statement to the public, the Istinomer team announced that the fake votes had propelled lies by members of the current opposition to the top of the list and moved statements by ruling politicians towards the bottom. Unable to guarantee the validity of the vote, the Istinomer team closed the poll and apologized to readers:

Priznajemo da je naša ideja propala. Nismo se dovoljno zaštitili. Odnosno, nismo bili u dovoljnoj meri svesni kako određene strukture u ovom društvu ništa ne prepuštaju slučaju. Očigledno, svaki rezultat koji izlazi pred javnost mora biti grubo friziran.

Izvinjavamo vam se, dragi čitaoci, posebno vama koji ste učestvovali u našoj anketi. Iako formalno nećemo proglasiti Laž decenije, verujemo da je i vama i nama jasno ko najviše laže i lažira.

We admit that our idea failed. We didn't provide sufficient protection. Or in other words, we failed to anticipate the degree of control exercised by certain structures in this society. Obviously, any result that is presented to the public will end up being thoroughly coiffed [by the powers that be].

We apologize to you, dear readers, in particular to those who took part in our survey. Even though we will not formally announce the Lie of the Decade, we believe that both you and we can see clearly who is the biggest liar and forger.

In the ten years of its existence, Istinomer has never suffered a hack of such intensity.

By reporting the cyberattack to the police, Istinomer's editorial board signaled its readiness to cooperate with the authorities. It issued a demand for an investigation that would disclose the identities of those who ordered the attack and funded the technology that underpinned it.

Napad na Istinomer flagrantan je primer pokušaja gušenja medijskih sloboda i onemogućavanja prvog fekt-čeking medija u regionu da javnost obaveštava o tome ko je se služi neistinama, zloupotrebom činjenica i neodgovornim obećanjima.

Izvinjavamo se publici Istinomera zbog otežanog praćenja naših sadržaja. Istinomer nastavlja svoju misiju provere činjenica i otkrivanja laži u izjavama političara i drugih učesnika u javnom životu.

The attack on Istinomer is a flagrant example of an attempt to smother media freedoms and disable the first fact-checking media in the region to inform the public about those who are  spreading lies, abusing facts and making irresponsible promises.

We sincerely apologize to the Istinomer audience for the slow and delayed service concerning our content. Istinomer will continue with its mission of fact-checking and disclosing lies in the statements of politicians and other participants in public discourse.

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