BBC website goes offline, but Jeremy Clarkson probably not to blame

This weekend, the BBC’s website was inaccessible to millions of internet users around the world.

The first conclusion many people jump to? It must be the work of Anonymous hacktivists, trying to persuade the BBC to bring controversial Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson back to TV screens after his recent suspension.

It might mean life is a lot less exciting, but sometimes there’s a more down-to-earth explanation for things.

For instance, cast your mind back a week or so ago – when a number of Apple services, including iTunes and App Store, were inaccessible for about 12 hours, reportedly costing Apple some $25 million in sales.

iTunes store down

Some reporters contacted me during the Apple blackout asking if I felt malicious hackers were to blame.

“Well it could be,” I shrugged. “But chances are it’s just an internal snafu. Maybe someone misconfigured something or tripped over a power cable while hoovering in the server room.”

Sure enough, it later transpired that the issue was an internal DNS issue that took some hours to resolve.

Sadly, these things can happen – even for huge companies like Apple.

And on Saturday, when the BBC website went offline, many were quick to assume that the broadcaster was under attack from hackers annoyed that controversial Top Gear TV show presenter might be for the chop following a highly-publicised “fracas” with a member of the production team.

BBC website down

The remaining episodes of this series of Top Gear have been shelved, and there are question marks over the programme’s future. With some 350 million fans around the world (including – it seems – UK Prime Minister David Cameron), it’s understandable that some might be annoyed that it might be the end of the road for the testosterone-fuelled motoring show – but did they really voice their annoyance with a denial-of-service attack?

What we do know is that people operating under the banner of Anonymous had rallied behind the #OpBringBackClarkson hashtag and called for Jeremy Clarkson’s reinstatement. And at least one anonymous poster threatened a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack a few days before the BBC site went down.

Anonymous Pastebin post

BBC you are warned… DDOS cannons will fire if you don’t comply.

That single post was enough for one tabloid newspaper to publish a story about the threat.

And then, of course, the BBC’s website went down a few days later.

So, it must have been an Anonymous DDoS attack, right?

Well, no.

BBC testcardThe BBC has denied that hackers had anything to do with the downtime. In years gone past its websites have wobbled from huge amounts of traffic (whether legitimate or otherwise) and these days has good systems in place to handle sudden spikes in traffic. You would probably need something more than a TV presenter allegedly getting into a punch-up over his production team’s failure to rustle up a simple steak and chips to rally the world’s hacktivists into creating an attack strong enough to knock the BBC off the internet.

A spokesman for the BBC described the downtime as an internal mess-up:

“The website was down for about an hour but it is all back up and running now. It was due to an internal system failure, which can happen when we are experiencing too much traffic or if there is an issue with our servers. Some sites were working and some weren’t so not everyone trying to access the site was affected.”

Next time something odd happens, don’t automatically assume that the explanation has to be related to internet criminals. Companies are made of humans. Humans make mistakes. Websites go down. Even big websites sometimes.

Author Graham Cluley, We Live Security

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