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Hackers wage global 'cyberwar' in defense of WikiLeaks

Anonymous hackers are rallying behind Julian Assange, declaring 'cyberwar' on governments and companies that have stopped doing business with WikiLeaks.

By Staff writer / December 9, 2010

This screen shot shows the home page of Mastercard.com. Mastercard was having severe technical problems Wednesday, Dec. 8, possibly a target by supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

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Boston

They're calling it a global "cyberwar." Among the victims: Visa, MasterCard, PayPal, Swiss bank PostFinance, and now the Swedish government. Among the attackers: Hackers from Chile to Norway to New Zealand.

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"The fact that it’s so global is just a sign of the times. This type of operation has no borders," says Gregg Housh, an unofficial spokesman for the loosely knit "hactivist" group Anonymous, which is organizing the cyberattacks.

Hackers worldwide have launched what they call “Operation Payback” targeting companies that have cut off support for WikiLeaks or its beleaguered founder Julian Assange. On the Twitter feed for "Operation Payback," the hackers today announced their next target: Amazon.com.

“The war is on,” said one person on the Anonymous chat forum WhyWeProtest.net, which Mr. Housh helped create in 2008. The efforts so far have disrupted the websites of the targeted companies for brief periods of time, though it isn't clear how much money – if any – it's costing the companies.

While the Anonymous hackers have called this a "cyberwar" over Internet freedom and support for WikiLeaks, security specialist Bruce Schneier says this is not a "war" in any sense of the word. "It’s kids playing politics."

Indeed, while Mr. Housh is in his mid-30s, many of the Anonymous participants are said to be teenagers.

The Swedish government’s official website, regeringen.se, was the latest to come under distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, which is when a mass of individual computers simultaneously attempt to access the same website, overloading and collapsing the website. A DDoS barrage overnight on Dec. 8 disabled the government website for several hours.

It came under attack because the government last month issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Assange on allegations of sexual assault, which he denies. He was arrested Dec. 7 in London and now faces possible extradition to Sweden. Assange's lawyer has called the arrest a "political stunt."

"In a lot of respects this has become a war. Assange is definitely thought of as a political prisoner," says Housh in a telephone interview from Boston, where he works by day for a computer repair company. While intimately aware of Anonymous activities, Housh himself says he is only an observer at this time.

As pressure has come from the US government for WikiLeaks to cease operations, US companies have also dropped support for the site, which on Nov. 28 began publishing more than 250,000 secret US diplomatic cables.

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