'Anonymous': How dangerous is hacker network defending WikiLeaks?
The borderless digital militia 'Anonymous' has taken down corporate websites to defend WikiLeaks. In so doing, say Internet security experts, it has become a new force to be reckoned with.
A self-styled and loosely affiliated group of Internet-freedom fighters dubbed “Anonymous” has morphed into a borderless digital militia, slinging Twitter posts and virtual handbills across cyberspace to coordinate digital attacks in defense of WikiLeaks and becoming a new force to be reckoned with on the Internet.Skip to next paragraph
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In the global furor since WikiLeaks' release of secret US documents and the arrest of the group's founder, Julian Assange, cyber attackers have crippled corporate websites. To do so they have deployed old digital weaponry forged by new social media tools into a novel virtual global attack system that is leaderless, anonymous and powerful.
"Operation Payback" is the name that Anonymous has given its cyber-retribution campaign against corporations that have withdrawn support and services from Mr. Assange, who was arrested in Britain in connection with a Swedish investigation into allegations of sexual assault. [Editor's note: The original mischaracterized the reasons for the British arrest.]
As of Thursday, the group's attacks had crippled or brought down with distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks at least a half dozen major websites belonging to Visa, Mastercard, PayPal, the Swiss bank Postfinance and others that withdrew services to WikiLeaks.
"This is probably the largest attack of its kind," Derek Manky, an Internet security expert at Fortinet, a Sunnyvale, Calif., computer security company. "It's not just one specific audience trying to launch an attack. It's a much more global audience – a global group – and these targets that they're taking down are not small."
Large they may be, but DDoS attacks like those that hit Mastercard, Visa, Paypal and other corporate websites by flooding them with data and Internet requests are nothing new, or advanced, technically speaking. Such attacks involve creating or enlisting the support of botnets – many thousands of computers coopted to work in tandem – and getting several of them to focus on particular Internet sites to clog them by making virtual information requests simultaneously. A sort of cyber blockade.
Use of social media is key
But it is the use of social media and the novel way old digital attack weapons are being organized that experts say is at the heart of what's happening, say experts who have studied the group. Anonymous members have essentially posted virtual handbills across the Internet on websites and Internet relay chat forums to rally new participants.
"We will fire at anyone or anything that tries to censor WikiLeaks. … Twitter, you're next,” reads one such handbill circulated Monday prior to a second DDoS attack on Paypal, according to Panda Labs, an Internet security research firm.
There are signs that some of the social networking sites are responding. Facebook and Twitter Thursday morning were reported by Reuters to have deleted the accounts of cyber activists who targeted Visa and other Internet payment sites.
There have been patriotically motivated attacks in the past. After the US accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, Chinese hacktivists posted messages on US government websites like “We won’t stop attacking until the war stops!” Russian hacktivists attacked Estonia after plans to move a Soviet era statue.