Details emerge about last summer’s attack on WYD Madrid website

VATICAN CITY — Reporters covering World Youth Day in Madrid last August and pilgrims attending the event knew the organization’s website was having trouble with hackers, but the seriousness of the attack and the ideology behind it are making news this week.

Young people await the pope at the opening of WYD Madrid last August. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Just hours after the pope arrived in Madrid Aug. 18 for the event, television screens in the WYD press center notified reporters the website was “experiencing technical difficulties due to hacking.” Techies covering WYD quoted event officials as saying the site had received threats before the event began.

Still, the site was back online within an hour.

News stories this week brought up the hacking attempt after Imperva, a computer security company, released a report, “Anatomy of an Anonymous Attack,” outlining what the company said it has learned about the hacking activities of the group that calls itself “Anonymous.” The report does not mention World Youth Day or the Vatican, but The New York Times reported that it confirmed “the Vatican” or, more accurately, World Youth Day, was the target.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said the article focused on the WYD site and as far as he knew, the Vatican’s own site had not experienced serious problems.

In an email this afternoon, Yago de la Cierva, who was director of World Youth Day Madrid, said, “We received word of a threat from the group Anonymous in July through a video they published online. However, we do not know if they were responsible directly for the actual attacks that we underwent during August.”

In addition to the notice on the screens in the WYD press center, he said, the staff posted information about the attack on the WYD social network sites, such as Facebook. In response, someone posted a comment complaining that WYD had shut Madrid down and threatened further cyber-attacks.

De la Cierva said the attacks could have been the work of “some radical fringes” of a protest movement present in Madrid at the time or the work of those sponsoring rallies to protest the pope’s trip to Spain.

“The consequences of those attacks were serious because the whole media center operation was based on our site: bookings, briefings, calls, sending out the pope’s texts in different languages, etc. We had to get back to paper, as you probably remember,” he told me.

As for Imperva’s role in uncovering the attack, he said, “I am pretty sure we didn’t hire anybody to solve the problem. What we did was to tell both Telefonica (one of WYD sponsors and our hosting provider) and the police, since the attacks were a cybercrime. We don’t know if either of them called Imperva. We didn’t.”

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