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December 1, 2022updated 02 Dec 2022 9:32am

Vatican cyberattack: DDoS strike could be work of Russian hacktivists

The Papal website remains offline after the attack, which follows a controversial interview about the Russian army.

By Claudia Glover

The Vatican City website has been knocked offline by a suspected distributed denial of service (DDoS) hack. The cyberattack comes days after the Pope was criticised by the Russian government for comments he made about its soldiers fighting in the war in Ukraine. An analyst told Tech Monitor that this sort of retaliation is typical of patriotic cybercrime gangs sympathetic to Russia.

The Pope’s website has been knocked offline by a suspected DDoS attack. (Photo by giulio napolitano/Shutterstock)

The attack on Wednesday afternoon appears to have been a DDoS attack, according to a statement from the jurisdiction of the Pope, also referred to as the ‘Holy See’. A spokesperson for the Vatican told Reuters that: “Technical investigations are ongoing due to abnormal attempts to access the site.”

Vatican website DDoS attack details

DDoS attacks are a preferred weapon of retaliatory cybercrime gangs, particularly those whose political allegiance is to Russia, as they are easy to instigate and have an immediate and obvious impact if successful. The Pope’s website site is still down at the time of writing.

The suspected hack comes three days after Pope Francis aired his political views on Russian soldiers’ conduct during the Ukraine war in America Magazine. In the interview, he said: “When I speak about Ukraine, I speak of a people who are martyred… When I speak about Ukraine, I speak about the cruelty because I have much information about the cruelty of the troops that come in.”

He went on to specifically call out some Russian soldiers as cruel. “Generally, the cruellest are perhaps those who are of Russia but are not of the Russian tradition, such as the Chechens, the Buryatia and so on,” he explained to the magazine.

This comment was criticised by Russian politicians. According to Moscow-based news outlet Tass, deputy speaker of Russia’s Federation Council (the upper house of the Russian parliament) Konstantin Kosachev fired back against these comments calling Pope Frances’s remarks “racially charged”.

“From my point of view, the statement is completely unacceptable both in form and content,” Kosachev said. “As for its form, it’s not for the leader of the Roman Catholic Church to comment on a situation that neither the state (the Vatican) nor the Roman Catholic Church has anything to do with.”

Are Russia-supporting hacktivists to blame?

This sort of political event is just the type to attract negative attention from patriotic, politically motivated cybercrime gangs, explains Allan Liska. intelligence analyst at cybersecurity company Recorded Future.

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“This is exactly the kind of attack the Russian patriotic gangs carry out in response [to a political event],” he says. “They get a lot of attention and a lot of bragging rights but don’t actually do a lot of damage.”

Liska was keen to point out that we do not have enough knowledge for any kind of retribution at this point. “I don’t think this is a Russian government attack,” he argues. “It may be something from one of the hacktivist groups that are aligned with Russia, that wouldn’t be surprising.”

Read more: How tech leaders responded to Russia’s war in Ukraine

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