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Continuing our work with CISA and the Joint Cyber Defense Collaborative to keep vulnerable communities secure online

04/02/2024

7 min read

Internet security and reliability has become deeply personal. This holds true for many of us, but especially those who work with vulnerable communities, political dissidents, journalists in authoritarian nations, or human rights advocates. The threats they face, both in the physical world and online, are steadily increasing.

At Cloudflare, our mission is to help build a better Internet. With many of our Impact projects, which protect a range of vulnerable voices from civil society, journalists, state and local governments that run elections, political campaigns, political parties, community networks, and more, we’ve learned how to keep these important groups secure online. But, we can’t do it alone. Collaboration and sharing of best practices with multiple stakeholders to get the right tools into the groups that need them is essential in democratizing access to powerful security tools.

Civil society has historically been the voice for sharing information about attacks that target vulnerable communities, both online and offline. In the last few years, we see governments increasingly appreciating how cyberattacks affect vulnerable voices and make an effort to identify the risks to these communities, and the resources available to protect them.

In March 2023, the US government launched the Summit for Democracy co-hosted by Costa Rica, Zambia, the Netherlands, and South Korea. We’ve written about our work at the summit and commitments on a wide range of actions to help advance human rights online. We were also proud to be included in US Agency for International Development's (USAID) announcement, as part of the second summit in South Korea in March 2024, as a potential technology partner for the Advancing Digital Democracy Academy initiative, which will offer skills training in cybersecurity, cloud computing, responsible AI to support governments, civil society organizations, and other vulnerable groups.

With multistakeholder collaboration a growing effort, we want to give you insight into our ongoing efforts with the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency through the Joint Cyber Defense Collaborative (JCDC) to work together to raise awareness about threats to civil society, best practices that groups can use to protect themselves online today, and new resources developed for these vulnerable communities.

What types of threats do civil society organizations face?

Civil society organizations, which include non-governmental organizations, community-based organizations, and advocacy groups, face a wide range of threats and challenges that can vary depending on their location, focus areas, and activities. These threats can come from various sources, offline and online, from governments, non-state actors, and external influences.  

Since our founding, we’ve provided a set of free services based on the idea that democratizing access to cybersecurity products makes the Internet safer and faster for a broader audience. Since 2014, we’ve continued to strengthen this idea with Project Galileo, providing a higher level of protection to vulnerable voices. Fast forward to 2024, and we now protect more than 2,600 organizations in 111 countries under Project Galileo, allowing us to gain a better understanding of threats these organizations face on a daily basis. In June 2023, we published a report showing that between July 1, 2022, and May 5, 2023, Cloudflare mitigated 20 billion attacks against organizations protected under the project, an average of nearly 67.7 million cyber attacks per day over the 10 month period.

We continue to learn more about cyberattacks against these groups and how to better equip them with the tools they need to stay online. Our Q2 2023 DDoS report, for example, noted that 17.6% of all traffic to nonprofits was DDoS traffic, and that nonprofits were the second most targeted sector for DDoS. In addition, we see prominent civil society organizations, like our partner the International Press Institute, fall victim to a cyber attack after releasing a report identifying multiple DDoS attacks against many independent media outlets in Hungary over a five month period.

What do these attacks look like for a civil society organization?

It is easy to provide overall statistics on the number of cyber attacks we see against organizations under Project Galileo. But that doesn't provide the whole story on what attacks look like in practice or how organizations can defend against them in real time.

When we were developing our Radar dashboard for the 9th anniversary of Project Galileo, we came across a noteworthy incident that involved an organization reporting on international legal issues, which highlights the importance of having security measures in place, even for organizations that do not believe they are a target. This event occurred between March 17 and March 18, 2023. On March 17, an international arrest warrant was issued for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian official Maria Lvova-Belova in connection with an alleged plot to relocate Ukrainian children to Russia.

Before and after this incident, the organization's website experienced low levels of traffic. However, on March 17, we observed a sudden surge in request traffic, escalating from under 1,000 requests per second to approximately 100,000 requests per second within a four-hour window, reaching its peak at 19:00 UTC. Fortunately, the majority of this traffic was effectively managed by our Web Application Firewall. Another notable spike occurred on March 18, with the peak occurring at 09:45 UTC, surpassing 667,000 requests per second. Almost all of these requests were identified as Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, as illustrated in the chart above. Throughout March 18, Cloudflare successfully thwarted a total of 844.4 million requests categorized as application layer DDoS attacks.

This incident highlights a recurring theme that we encounter within Project Galileo. Many organizations may remain unaware of their vulnerability to cyberattacks until their website is targeted by a disruptive DDoS attack. In this instance, the organization maintained its online presence throughout the entire attack, likely only discovering the abnormal surge in traffic after the attack had subsided.

This is just one example of an attack targeting an organization under Project Galileo, but they happen every day. But don’t just take it from us, check out more stories from organizations on how they stay secure online.

Collaborating with CISA through the Joint Cyber Defense Collaborative to identify how to get our services to more vulnerable communities

One of the ways we expand our protections with Project Galileo is through partnerships and collaborations. We currently work with more than 50 civil society organizations who approve organizations for protection under Project Galileo. The role of our civil society partners is essential as they have the knowledge and expertise around organizations that need these types of services.

When JCDC reached out to us about an initiative focused on protecting vulnerable communities online, we were excited to help make resources more accessible from a trusted voice. As governments increasingly identify the need for cybersecurity services for vulnerable communities, they have the ability to make these resources accessible and bring together multiple stakeholders to help promote best security practices. With JCDC, we are collaborating on three working groups to cover a range of topics that include crowdsourcing resources available for at-risk communities, developing new resources for these groups, cyber volunteer programs from companies and civil society, information sharing and development of threat reports and more.

With a range of stakeholders including civil society, tech companies, and CISA, we’ve been able to identify opportunities to build capacity and transparency strategies when it comes to extending products to these communities. We hope that other governments can see these efforts on providing protections to vulnerable communities as a model for effective collaboration.

What are steps you can take right now to ensure your organization's website and internal teams are protected?

As part of our working groups with JCDC, we focused on enhancing the baseline of cyber hygiene for civil society organizations and improving resilience and response capabilities in the face of a cyberattack. We put together a list of tools and resources that are available for much of these groups that include:

  • Cloudlare’s Social Impact portal to help organizations navigate how to keep their website secure on Cloudflare.
  • Zero Trust Security for vulnerable communities: In this roadmap, created by Cloudflare, intended for civil society and at-risk organizations, we hope to demystify the work of Zero Trust security and offer easy to follow steps to boost your cyber security efforts in your organization. This roadmap includes a range of Cloudflare’s security products with case studies for civil society, level of effort to implement, and the teams involved to make the complex world of cyber security more accessible and understandable to a wider audience.
  • Cloudflare Radar and the Outage Center to track Internet shutdowns: In addition to the route leaks and route hijacks insights, we have Radar notification functionality, enabling organizations to subscribe to notifications about traffic anomalies, confirmed Internet outages, route leaks, or route hijacks.
  • JCDC’s CISA Awareness site: CISA—through JCDC—has compiled a list of cybersecurity resources intended to help high-risk communities who are at heightened risk of being targeted by cyber threat actors because of their identity or work.

To the future

There is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to protecting vulnerable voices. We hope that by collaborating with a range of stakeholders from governments, civil society, and tech companies we can better share tools and expertise to help these communities navigate the complex digital environments we find ourselves in. We remain committed to this crucial mission in the years to come and look forward to creating more partnerships to expand our products into new areas.
If you are an organization looking for protection under Project Galileo, please visit our website: cloudflare.com/galileo.

We protect entire corporate networks, help customers build Internet-scale applications efficiently, accelerate any website or Internet application, ward off DDoS attacks, keep hackers at bay, and can help you on your journey to Zero Trust.

Visit 1.1.1.1 from any device to get started with our free app that makes your Internet faster and safer.

To learn more about our mission to help build a better Internet, start here. If you're looking for a new career direction, check out our open positions.
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Jocelyn Woolbright|@jo_woolbright
Cloudflare|@cloudflare

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