Interpol arrests Anonymous hackers: Do they warrant the attention?

Anonymous hackers were allegedly preparing to shut down Chilean and Colombian government websites. But these attacks are like digital graffiti.

Yves Herman/Reuters
A protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, symbolic of the hacktivist group 'Anonymous,' takes part in a protest in central Brussels in January.

Yesterday, police coordinating through Interpol conducted a sweep of arrests in Europe and South America of 25 suspected hackers from the group Anonymous. The hackers were allegedly preparing to deface and to launch “denial of service” attacks against key government websites, such as Colombia’s Ministry of Defense and presidential website, Chile’s electric company Endesa, and Chile’s national library. If found guilty, the accused hackers could face sentences of 541 days to five years in prison.

In retaliation, hackers briefly shut down the website of Interpol itself. Somewhere out there, a girl with a dragon tattoo is smiling, lopsidedly.

It all sounds very dramatic, and past website attacks by the Anonymous collective have been effective at getting a rather clever or satirical point across about what they see as the wrong-headedness of government policies.

But cyber-attacks of this sort against government websites are only a slightly higher-tech version of spray-paint attacks against a high-school wall. One wonders why Anonymous, or Interpol, even bothered.

Compared with the cyber-warfare attack against Iran’s nuclear program – remember the 2010 Stuxnet computer virus which effectively destroyed one-fifth of Iran's uranium-enrichment centrifuges and delayed its nuclear program? – defacing a website is rather tame. If hackers are peeved enough at the Chilean or Colombian governments to declare “war,” then this is of the “war is heck” variety.

The issues that hacker activists, or hactivists, focus on are serious ones. When WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange published hundreds of thousands of US diplomatic cables last year, he did so to protest against excesses of the US government during the ongoing "war against terror." Mr. Assange – who faces allegations of sexual assault in Sweden – has since turned his sights onto a private website Stratfor, a subscription-based news service that focuses on terrorism and security issues. (Editor's note: An earlier version of this story referred to "charges" against Assange. He has not been charged.)

When hackers broke into the website of the Boston Police Department in early February, posting a video of KRS-One’s rap video “Sound of Da Police,” they were making a satirical point about supposed police brutality in the breakup of the Occupy Boston campsite last year.

When hackers for the Anonymous collective took over the website of the Greek Ministry of Justice on Feb. 3, they did so to protest the Greek government’s signing of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trademark Agreement, which commits the Greek government to cracking down on counterfeit movies, music, software, and other products. The Greek hackers left this message to show their displeasure.

We know EVERYTHING, We have your PASSWORDS , We are watching YOU.

NEXT TARGET WILL BE ALL THE MEDIA IN GREECE. ( ertTV , etc )

WE HAVE MOST OF THE MEDIA WEBSITES ADMIN PASSWORDS.

We are Legion. This is JUST the BEGINING.

www.ministryofjustice.gr is just an example of what we are capable of!

You have 2 weeks to stop ACTA in Greece otherwhise (sic) we will do CYBERWARFARE by defacing 300 sites and all the media and ministries.

Some hackers seem to have a sense of humor. Consider this video, posted on Feb. 17, on the Federal Trade Commission’s hacked website, making rather brutal fun of the US government’s hoo-rah policing of pirated goods.

The Federal Trade Commission, for the record, was not amused.

“The Bureau of Consumer Protection’s Business Center website and the partnership site NCPW run by the Federal Trade Commission were hacked earlier today. The FTC takes these malicious acts seriously. The sites have been taken down and will be brought back up when we’re satisfied that any vulnerability has been addressed."

But how much effect do any of these attacks really have? Most government websites that have been attacked are merely informational. They are the public face of that agency, with a list of recent statements, policies, and frequently asked questions. Shutting down that website is the equivalent of shooting the messenger, and leaving the king, all the king’s horses, and all the king’s men unharmed.

Similarly, when WikiLeaks takes on Stratfor – a private company that has made money promising an insider’s view of the intelligence community – it isn’t even shooting the messenger. It is shooting a guy who says he knows the messenger’s second cousin.

With the war in Afghanistan still raging, Guantanamo Bay still open, intellectual property debates still unresolved, there are serious issues to be discussed. Is it not time to put aside the good-vs.-evil pro-wrestling theatrics and get down to the discussion? 

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