This week Harvard University provided a textbook example of how to respond to an attack from hackers.
On the morning of Monday, Sept. 26, Harvard’s home page was hacked by a group calling itself the “Syrian Electronic Army.” Visitors to the site were greeted with a jumbled message that read “SyRiAn eLeCTronic ArMy WeRe HeRE.” This was accompanied by a photo of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, and included further threats against the United States, criticizing its opposition to the Assad regime.
“This site has been breached to spread our message even if illegally,” said the posting, as reported by BBC News. It continued in broken English: “Do you support the war on Syria? If you are you, as well as the following Syria’s population of 23 million people. This means 23 million bomb. Imagine what we could do.”
Site hackings are a nearly regular feature of the news cycle now, and it won't be too long before some communications best practices become formalized. Anytime an organization's Web site comes under attack there is the potential for the crisis to either escalate or be mishandled. However, in this case, Harvard University reacted in a swift and efficient manner.
“The University’s home page was compromised by an outside party this morning,” said Harvard in an official statement. “We took down the site for several hours in order to restore it. The attack appears to have been the work of a sophisticated individual or group.”
“[Harvard University] did a great job,” says Jim Lukaszewski, president of The Lukaszewski Group. “They acknowledged it happened. And let’s face it, a lot of people know it happened—it’s a pretty big site. Harvard's statement about those who were responsible were well thought out.”
Although the “Syrian Electronic Army” took credit for the attack, Harvard’s official response made no mention of that fact. And that’s important, says Lukaszewski. “Accusatory marks—in fact, any kind of negative or judgmental language—should be avoided,” he says. “This is because the people who do this [hacking] are likely to do it again. It is imperative to have a simple, sensible and constructive response approach in mind.”
Harvard is thinking ahead to future attacks—and so should any high-profile organization. “We are analyzing this event and will use the findings to improve our security practices for an environment that is seeing escalating threats,” a Harvard spokesperson told BBC News.
And, truth be told, in such a situation, that is almost all a hacked organization can do. As Eric Dezenhall, CEO of Dezenhall Resources, says, “Hacking [situations] are pretty straightforward to handle because people intuitively understand that the target is a victim, not the perpetrator. It’s not Harvard’s job to debate the core issues per se—it's just to ensure audiences about the integrity of the site.”