Türkiye–Syria interferogram

Russian hackers disrupt earthquake aid missions in Syria and Turkey

Image credit: ESA

Russian hackers have claimed responsibility for a cyber attack on aid missions in Turkey and Syria, while Nasa and ESA scientists have used satellite information to provide support after the disaster.

Technology has been at the forefront of the response to the two earthquakes that recently hit Turkey and Syria and which have claimed an estimated 36,000 deaths.

In the wake of the disaster, Russian government-linked hacking group Killnet has claimed responsibility for a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack that has disrupted communications between NATO officials and military aircrafts engaged in search-and-rescue operations. 

A DDoS attack is a type of cyber attack that floods the target with so much data that it becomes overwhelmed and can no longer handle legitimate traffic. This often results in users being unable to access the site or service.

“We are carrying out strikes on NATO. Details in a closed channel,” the hacker group said on one of its associate Telegram channels, The Telegraph reported. 

Although the NATO website was only down for a couple of hours, the DDoS attack is believed to have hampered the relief efforts, with one of NATO’s Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC) mission C-17 aircraft being warned about the disruption during a mission.

A NATO official confirmed the attack and said that the organisation is currently addressing the issue. 

Communications between the different relief operators are fundamental in the search for survivors of the disaster that hit the area on 6 February. 

The initial 7.8-magnitude tremor in southeast Turkey and northern Syria was followed by another of 7.7 magnitude, causing widespread destruction in both countries. The disaster has been described as one of the most powerful seismic quakes that the region has experienced in the last century. 

Responding to the tragedy, scientists at Nasa and ESA have used satellite data to support emergency aid organisations, while scientists have begun to analyse ground movement, aiding the risk assessments that authorities will use as they plan recovery and reconstruction, as well as long-term research to better model such events.

ESA's Sentinel-1A satellite travelled south over Turkey at an altitude of 700km (435 miles), producing data that was used to create a series of maps that could be used by rescuers. 

One of the maps is an interferogram of the region, which measures surface displacement after earthquakes, revealing a large-scale deformation between Maras and Antakya with high gradient fringes and low coherence along the Karasu valley.

Türkiye–Syria interferogram

Türkiye–Syria interferogram / ESA

Image credit: ESA

According to Ziyadin Çakır, from the Department of Geology at Istanbul Technical University, the Sentinel-1 interferogram indicates that it is the East Anatolian Fault that ruptured during the first earthquake.

“In order to support the assessment of the impact of the earthquakes that hit Turkey and Syria, we require imagery with the highest possible spatial resolution over many areas of interest," said Philippe Bally, ESA representative of the International Charter. 

"Tasking Earth observation missions was challenging because of the cloud coverage over the region on the hours and days following the activation.”

Nasa has also been sharing aerial views and data from the region in ways that can aid relief and recovery workers, as well as improve its own ability to model and predict such events.

“Nasa’s hearts and minds are with those impacted by the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria,” said Nasa administrator Bill Nelson. “Nasa is our eyes in the sky and our teams of experts are working hard to provide valuable information from our Earth-observing fleet to first responders on the ground.”

East-west component of the deformation following the Türkiye and Syria earthquakes of 6 February 2023 measured using Copernicus Sentinel-2 data.

East-west component of the deformation following the Türkiye and Syria earthquakes of 6 February 2023 measured using Copernicus Sentinel-2 data./ ESA

Image credit: ESA

Taking into account the vast amount of information that is being shared following the disaster, and the fundamental role it plays in relief efforts, cyber-security experts have stressed the importance of not taking security for granted. 

In one direct incident caused by the Killnet DDoS attack, NATO was unable to communicate with a C-17 aircraft while it was in flight due to network disruption. Fortunately, the plane later landed safely.

"This is a sad reminder of how cyber attacks do not always have to result in a breach to be successful," said Avishai Avivi, CISO at SafeBreach.

"While there was no breach of NATO systems, the fact that their services were disrupted most likely resulted in lost lives in Turkey. This is an example of how a cyber attack can create an impact in real life."

NATO has previously warned that cyber attacks could trigger a collective response. However, it is ambiguous what would constitute such a response and what it would look like.

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