Sun site attacked by cybercriminals

If you had trouble accessing The Sun’s website last week, blame cybercriminals.

Hackers using computers in Russia, Ukraine, Pakistan, Brazil, Great Britain, the U.S. and elsewhere launched a Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) cyberattack on amisun.com on Aug. 25.

The local weekly’s website is viewed internationally, with high readership in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Germany and Brazil, all primary feeder markets for tourism to the area.

The attacks began about the same time that an update on red tide was published on Aug. 25, attracting the attention of Google, which promoted the story. Nearly 20,000 users quickly visited the website, many clicking through from The Sun’s Facebook page, facebook.com/AnnaMariaIslandSun.

The high numbers in themselves were not a red flag, said Cindy Lane, The Sun’s Digital Editor, explaining that even higher numbers were reached during Hurricane Irma a year ago, when the website was just a few weeks old, and red tide has recently proven to be of international interest.

But the initial trouble with the site that at first appeared innocuous quickly escalated. The Sun was attacked more than 1.5 million times in less than a day.

The Sun and Nova Network took immediate measures to defend the site, gradually restoring it to full capacity on Aug. 30.

Cybercriminals organize computers around the world to access websites thousands of times until the sites are overwhelmed, keeping users and even web administrators from accessing the sites, said Peter Langlois, CEO of Crystal River-based Nova Network.

It’s impossible to know the motivation for the attack with certainty, but hackers are known for wanting to shut down content.

There’s not a global appreciation of the First Amendment freedom of the press, Langlois said, adding that motivations could range from business owners who do not want red tide information published to people who stood to gain financially or get ‘vengeance’ to a random user with a grudge against Google, which picked up the story.

The website publicized The Sun’s statewide First Amendment Defense award from the Florida Press Association in August.

“We are in a global economy,” Langlois said. “Even though The Sun is local, it is international. And even though it is a weekly print edition, its online impact is immediate.”

Google analytics show that The Sun has increased its online readership more than 10 times since launching a year ago, which Langlois attributed to “timely, relevant coverage of issues that have a regional or larger meaning,” such as red tide.