How the Phoenix Suns basketball team takes on social media attacks

Barrage of network attacks surface during big games as sports fans go wild

Every sport has its fans, and the Phoenix Suns basketball team is finding that use of social networking has become one of the main ways to keep in touch with its fan base -- though it can get dicey when basketball fans across the NBA go a little wild before big games.

"Social media is big, like Twitter and Facebook," says Bill Bolt, vice president of information technology for the Phoenix Suns, the NBA team whose home arena is the US Airways Center in Phoenix, Ariz. "And now there's Google."

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Online interaction with fans started years ago with the team's website and email, and now there are five employees of the Phoenix Suns coordinating outreach on social media, whether it's tweeting team news, posting video interviews with coaches or team stars like Jared Dudley and Steve Nash, or selling game tickets through direct interaction with potential customers.

Phoenix Suns players on the court. The team uses social networking extensively to reach fans online.

But sometimes things can get a little out of hand when emotions run high and fans from competing teams run wild across the Internet.

The craziness comes into play when there are direct attacks on the Phoenix Suns network and "some people will try to log into the network," says Bolt, saying the Phoenix Suns' information technology department also detects attempts to try to get into email or Twitter accounts associated with basketball stars. These incidents are most apparent as ongoing battles that occur at playoff times when emotions run high among fans of competing teams.

"Some of this crosses the line," says Bolt, adding the Phoenix Suns have to dedicate resources to screening and eliminating expressions of virulent hate or verbal abuse coming in via Facebook and other sources.

There are also attempts to send email floods to the Phoenix Suns and attempts at phishing to steal identities. The Phoenix Suns makes use of security gear from Check Point, McAfee, SonicWall and LogRhythm, among others, to hold down the fort by monitoring, detecting and filtering out attack traffic. Most of these types of attacks tend to be cyclical and tied to big games.

Most of this strikes Bolt as not deep-down malicious but just basketball fans going zany at their computers for a short spell. But there are also attacks that suggest someone would like to infiltrate the Phoenix Suns, perhaps for more nefarious purposes.

Bolt says his IT team, which includes three technicians, keeps close watch on information related to Microsoft vulnerabilities and dangerous new malware types, and when there are worries, will write custom anti-malware signatures or temporarily block access to certain Microsoft servers. "When we interact with the outside, we're always cautious to protect the systems bringing traffic back in," says Bolt. "I'm using a lot of security products."

Bolt pointed out that the Phoenix Suns website is hosted by Turner Entertainment in Atlanta as part of a contract with the National Basketball Association and its teams. The Phoenix Suns uploads content to Turner. And in other complexity, the IT staff at the Phoenix Suns is responsible for assisting with events taking place at the US Airways Center arena.

"So if the circus, for instance, comes for a visit, it asks for Wi-Fi resources so they can do their business while in the building. Or they may want to do simulcast. We give them the bandwidth they need," says Bolt, adding these kinds of visitors get network credentials to log in to a separate VLAN with access to the Internet.

Since a lot of events go on in the evening, it's helpful that the LogRhythm monitoring is set up to automatically watch whether the variety of databases, servers and network resources are not only up and running but working optimally. "One of the most serious things it discovered was it warned me databases were potentially running out of space," says Bolt, adding that would have left a lot of employees doing nothing if it hadn't been detected.

Ellen Messmer is senior editor at Network World, an IDG publication and website, where she covers news and technology trends related to information security.

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