Website defacement is a form of cyber attack where hackers drastically alter the visual appearance of a website or web page. It can be compared to vandals messing up public walls or buildings with unwanted graffiti.
Web defacement is mostly done for ideological reasons. Hacktivists deface the websites of companies or organizations they accuse of social or political wrongdoing. They block access to the pages and replace their original content with a statement that strongly proclaims their beliefs and demands.
The attack is also used to make money, such as when hackers deface a website during the course of a ransomware attack.
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Hackers would sometimes deface websites just for the thrill of it. At times, the act may be politically motivated.
The Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) was among the growing list of victims of website defacement. In January 2020, pro-Iran hacktivists hijacked its website and displayed a picture of a beaten-up President Donald Trump.
Another highly publicized example took place in 2008. A Turkish group called “NetDevilz” defaced the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) website by posting the following message on the site, which was live for about 20 minutes before the authority regained control of its domain:
“You think that you control the domains, but you don’t! Everybody knows wrong. We control the domains including ICANN! Don’t you believe us? haha 🙂
(Lovable Turkish hackers group)”
Methods Hackers Use to Compromise Websites
Hackers can quickly take over a website’s control panel if they want to, especially if its owner has lax security practices. Through phishing emails, nefarious actors can send users a link that redirects to a dangerous site they control. That can lead to the download of malicious programs onto the visitor’s computer, allowing the attackers to steal the user’s credentials or remotely control the affected device.
Domain Name System (DNS) hijacking also paves the way for criminals to deface a site. As the so-called “phonebook of the Internet,” the DNS converts IP addresses into human-readable domain names. The system’s design, unfortunately, makes it prone to hacking, which is why DNS records need to point to the right destinations. Misconfigured domain records can be quickly taken over by a hacker. All hackers need is to find a dangling domain to carry out DNS-based attacks, including website defacement.
Consequences of Website Defacement
Like any other hacking incident, website defacement negatively affects the website and even the whole business. Among the consequences of website defacement are:
- Loss of visitor confidence
- Website blacklisting by search engines like Google
- Lower site search ranking
These consequences may be difficult to quantify, but they could translate to income loss, too. When you stop ranking on Google and other search engines, your customers are less likely to find you. On top of that, customers who witnessed the website defacement could lose confidence in your company. Both scenarios could result in revenue loss.
Website defacement is very visible, so clients, partners, and other stakeholders would immediately know what’s going on. The only upside is that you would also know what’s happening, so you would be able to act on it promptly. Compared with data breaches that take about 197 days to detect, you can immediately mitigate website defacement.
How to Determine If Your Website Is Getting Defaced
Website owners and system administrators can check if their websites are at risk of defacement. With the aid of advanced cybersecurity tools, they can watch out for attack entry points, such as spam emails and malware. Users can also install a variety of cybersecurity solutions on their servers to monitor visitors. They can also rely on these tools to determine when unauthorized users make changes to their site content or records.
Steps for Recovering from Website Defacement
Website defacement can have dire consequences. For one, visitors may no longer trust a website that suffered from a hacking incident. The longer a website stays defaced, the worse the effects can get. Ultimately, a defaced website can get blacklisted by Google and other search engines, which is much more challenging to get out of. As much as possible, it’s best to remove signs of defacement as soon as possible.
Recovering from website defacement is easy for a site that gets backed up regularly. The site administrator or owner can simply point to an uncompromised backup to resolve the issue. If no backups are available, here’s what you can do:
- Log in to the server using Secure Shell (SSH). That enables administrators to operate network services securely even over an unsecured network.
- Create a backup of the site in the current state.
- Uncover recent changes made to the server and verify each with all users. Undo unauthorized modifications.
- Open the web page using a text editor to remove suspicious codes.
- Do a website test to see if it remains operational after removing suspicious codes.
Once the website is restored to its original state, it would be best to practice precautionary measures. Changing all passwords, updating plugins and themes, and adjusting user settings can go a long way in ensuring that it cannot be targeted by hackers again.
Did you know that the Canadian Internet service provider (ISP) dlcwest[.]com was one of the first website defacement victims? Its website was hacked in 1995 to show a graphic with the caption “You’ve been hacked MOFO.”