Pro-Kremlin activists are increasingly using underground hacker networks to suppress the political opposition and independent media which they believe pose a danger to Vladimir Putin's hold on power in Russia, a report said on Wednesday.
Cyber attacks on websites of independent-minded news outlets such as Ekho Moskvy radio and cable and Internet TV channel Dozhd around the time of a December parliamentary and election have raised concerns about a crackdown on dissent.
Those attacks confirmed the worst fears that the Kremlin can use the hacker community to organise attacks on independent media sites and the opposition, said the report from Britain-based human rights advocacy website OpenDemocracy.
The number of denial of service attacks on political targets has continued to grow, the report said, referring to the most common form of assault used by pro-Kremlin activists, in which a flood of requests forces a site to shut down.
On the day of the December 4 election, independent media website Slon.ru was bombarded by up to 250,000 fake requests for information, mostly from India and Pakistan, which caused the server to shut down.
The increase shows the extent to which pro-government activists are willing to clamp down on the Internet in the wake of the biggest opposition protests of Putin's 12-year rule. The protests were prompted by allegations of fraud in the election that were spread largely on social media.
The increasingly accessible technology used in hacking attacks is allowing pro-Kremlin groups to find more and more people willing and able to carry out attacks, the report said.
The increasing accessibility to hacker tools in Russia has also given the political opposition a chance to inflict damage on pro-Kremlin targets.
The Russian arm of hacking group Anonymous claimed responsibility for leaking documents that detailed alleged payments by pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi to bloggers to praise Putin and discredit his opponents.
Many of Russia's most advanced hackers refuse to cooperate in attack on political targets and are focused on making money, the OpenDemocracy report said.
Group IB, a Russian-based computer security firm believed to have strong links with security services, reported on Tuesday that financial hackers in Russia made a total of $2.3 billion in 2011, nearly double the amount they raked in the year before.
Reuters was not able to independently verify the figure.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)