A surge in hacker attacks on several Armenian government and private websites has prompted Armenian information technology experts to demand that Armenia's Internet security become a matter of state security.
Since the beginning of August, an estimated 100 attacks have been leveled at servers hosting websites for the government, the Armenian State Tax Service, the Diaspora Ministry and the webmail for the Ministry of Economy. The attacks have reportedly intensified in the past ten days. Websites for the Russian-owned VTB Bank, the Armenian Football Federation and the mayor of Gyumri, a town in northwestern Armenia near the Turkish border, have also been targeted.
Among other acts, hackers posted on the sites swear words in English, the flags of Azerbaijan and Turkey, a map that shows the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbiajan, and photos of victims from the 1988-1994 Nagorno-Karabakh war.
A photo of Azerbaijani Lieutenant Ramil Safarov, who axed to death an Armenian army officer during North Atlantic Treaty Organization training exercises in 2004, was placed on the home pages of the State Tax Service and the Diaspora Ministry.
"Attacks always occur, but this time they are unprecedented and persistent," said information security consultant Samvel Martirosian."The number of successful attacks is already alarming. It's clear that if the situation goes on like this, the whole of Armenia might very soon become very vulnerable."
Information security experts blame Azerbaijani and Turkish hackers for the attacks -- a reflection of Armenia's ongoing sour relations with both countries.
In general, they say, attacks on Armenian government sites tend to pick up pace around dates related to the 1988-1994 war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, the April 24 commemoration of the 1915 mass slaughter of ethnic Armenians in Turkey, or various political developments.
August, when most of Armenia is on vacation, is the considered the "hottest" time for hacker attacks since websites are less tightly monitored then, experts say. Last August, hackers took over the websites for the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Sport and Youth Affairs and the General Prosecutor's Office, according to Ruben Muradian, chief security officer at Yerevan's Smart Tech company, which specializes in IT security for banks.
One political analyst argues that the issue is a sign of flagging Azerbaijani interest in talks with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.
"This is a confrontational attitude, a method of state propaganda demonstrating that Azerbaijan is not ready for peace," asserted Suren Surenyants, who is also a senior member of the opposition Republican Party.
No attempt has been made to contact the governments of Turkey and Azerbaijan, with which Armenia has no diplomatic relations, about the attacks.
A representative of the National Security Service, however, maintains that efforts have already been taken to defend government servers from such attacks.
In late April 2009, the National Security Service set up a hub server that has allegedly prevented "more than 10,000" hacker attacks in the period, according to Artsvin Baghramian, director of the National Security Service's press center assures.
Baghramian termed the uproar over the August attacks just a "fuss."
"This is not an issue to be solved in a year," Baghramyan said. "We have worked and found the weak spots for the attacked websites. Now we are trying to increase the defenses and enlarge the hub [server]."
Nonetheless, IT specialists worry about what the attacks say about Armenia's level of Internet security.
"It's not even important what they place [on the websites] . . . this stuff will be deleted. Maybe someone will lose their job, maybe not," commented SmartTech's Muradian. "What is important is our attitude to security. Even one hijacked website is a big problem in terms of information security. "
Expert Martirosian notes that cheap, poor-quality websites make the level of IT security in Armenia extremely low. Owners do not perform continuous site maintenance , and do not update security systems as attack methods change.
President Sargsyan's website -- "under constant control" -- is one notable exception to this trend, he added.
"Security is continuous work . . ." commented Muradian. "Websites will be hijacked until we start treating security as a process."
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance journalist based in Yerevan.