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The internet around the globe has been slowed down in what security experts are describing as the biggest cyber-attack in history. A row between a spam-fighting group and hosting firm has generated retaliation attacks flooding core infrastructure. It is having an impact on widely used services like Netflix – and experts are worrying that it could escalate to affect banking and email services.

Spamhaus, an organisation, which aims to help email providers filter out spam and other unwanted content.  The group maintains a number of blocklists – a database of servers known to be being used for malicious purposes. Recently, Spamhaus have blocked servers maintained by Cyberbunker, a Dutch web host which states it will host anything with the exception of child pornography or terrorism-related material.

Sven Olaf Kamphuis, who claims to be a spokesman for Cyberbunker, said, in a message, that Spamhaus was abusing its position, and should not be allowed to decide “what goes and does not go on the internet”.

Spamhaus has alleged that Cyberbunker, in cooperation with “criminal gangs” from Eastern Europe and Russia, is behind the attack. Cyberbunker has as yet offered no reply.

Steve Linford, chief executive for Spamhaus, said the scale of the attack was unprecedented. “We’ve been under this cyber-attack for well over a week. But we’re up – they haven’t been able to knock us down. Our engineers are doing an immense job in keeping it up – this sort of attack would take down pretty much anything else.”  Mr Linford said that the attack was being investigated by five different national cyber-police-forces around the world, but said he was unable to disclose more details as the forces in question were concerned that they too may suffer attacks on their own infrastructure.

The attackers have used a tactic known as Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS), which floods the intended target with large amounts of traffic in an attempt to render it unreachable by normal users. In this case, Spamhaus’s Domain Name System (DNS) servers were targeted – the infrastructure that joins domain names, such as bbc.co.uk, the website’s numerical internet protocol address.

The knock-on effect is hurting internet services globally, said Prof Alan Woodward, a cybersecurity expert at the University of Surrey. “If you imagine it as a motorway, attacks try and put enough traffic on there to clog up the on and off ramps. With this attack, there’s so much traffic it’s clogging up the motorway itself.”

Spamhaus is able to cope at present as it has highly distributed infrastructure in a number of countries. The group is supported by many of the world’s largest internet companies who rely on it to filter unwanted material. The attacks typically happened in intermittent bursts of high activity.

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