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Amid pandemic and protests, Cloudflare is defending vulnerable websites

Project Galileo, Cloudflare’s free web protection program for nonprofits, media, and other civic groups, has seen growth in this massive news year.

Amid pandemic and protests, Cloudflare is defending vulnerable websites
[Photos: Koshu Kunii/Unsplash; Greg Rakozy/Unsplash]
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Project Galileo, Cloudflare’s operation that gives free web attack protection and other services to nonprofits, media groups, and others, has seen a wave of signups from groups working on the COVID-19 relief effort and fighting racism, the company says.

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Overall, Project Galileo, which is marking its six-year anniversary, has seen a 60% increase in participants since last year, with more than 1,000 now receiving service through the program, according to Cloudflare.

And as recent events like the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd’s killing have unfolded, they’ve led organizations working in those areas to sign up for protection. That’s generally due to both malicious traffic—such as attempted distributed denial of service attacks Cloudflare recently reported have been targeting racial justice groups—and a rise in legitimate visits as the public seeks information.

“The reality of what the service does is it addresses attacks but it also addresses an increase in traffic,” says Alissa Starzak, the San Francisco company’s head of public policy and the lead on Project Galileo. “Most backend infrastructures can’t handle that if they’re not prepared for that.”

Cloudflare stores copies of web content on its own network of servers, so bursts of requests don’t overwhelm the infrastructure of the organizations where it originates. The company also aims to filter out malicious traffic, including attempts to overwhelm servers with bogus requests in denial of service attacks. It also provides other services such as access control for customers’ internal sites, which has become useful with more people working remotely during the pandemic shutdowns.

“We try to work with the organizations that come in the door to give them the set of services that they actually need,” Starzak says.

Wrangling traffic

Since the coronavirus erupted, Cloudflare has managed traffic for groups including Coronasafe, which offers an open-source guide to staying safe; Freifunk Munich, which offers online conferencing to schools and has seen a recent increase in denial of service attacks; and The Water Project, which provides access to water and sanitation in sub-Saharan Africa and has expanded to new communities amid the pandemic.

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More recently, after Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, the majority of organizations signing up have been what Cloudflare calls issue-based advocacy groups, including many focused on social justice and fighting racism. Cloudflare, which typically doesn’t share names of Galileo clients without permission, declined to identify any by name. The company reported last week that there has been “a dramatic increase in the number of cyberattacks against” antiracist organizations.

“Unfortunately, if recent history is any guide, those who speak out against oppression will continue to face cyberattacks that attempt to silence them,” company officials wrote last week.

You have to make sure that you’re not just defending yourself at the times when things all seem to be going wrong.”

Alissa Starzak, Cloudflare
In general, the participants in Project Galileo come from a number of fields, including nonprofits, civic-oriented nongovernment organizations, journalists, and artists. Another project, called Cloudflare for Campaigns, launched early this year to cater to political candidates, including offering free service to U.S. federal campaigns. And the company’s Athenian Project offers protections to state and local election sites.

“We have definitely seen a spike as elections go forward this year in people signing up for the Athenian Project,” Starzak says.

Other cloud providers, including Google and Microsoft, also offer various products and guidance designed to help elections, candidates, and public officials keep hackers at bay.

Increasingly, Starzak says, organizations in general are realizing there’s a benefit to signing up for web protection even before there’s a security incident or a news-related burst of traffic.

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“You have to make sure that you’re not just defending yourself at the times when things all seem to be going wrong,” she says. “You have to have defenses up so when things start to go wrong, they don’t go off track.”

About the author

Steven Melendez is an independent journalist living in New Orleans.

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