Wikileaks has fallen on hard times. According to site founder Julian Assange, he needs twice the budget of Wikipedia — $31.2M USD a year — to keep the site going or he may just shut it down. And Mr. Assange’s key U.S. government source, Bradley Manning, is sitting in federal prison awaiting a pile of new charges.
Amid this backdrop, hacker group Anonymous has pledged to expand its cyberwar to include attacks against key U.S. government offices and businesses. The group claims its attacks on the federal government’s and businesses are designed to free Bradley Manning and aid Wikileaks in its quest to eliminate “corruption” in the U.S. government.
I. Anonymous Conducts Personal Attacks on the U.S. Military Members
Barrett Brown, 29, calls himself senior strategy officer for the group. He recently was interviewed by MSNBC and explained why his group is looking to attack critical U.S. institutions. He states, “It’s a guerrilla cyberwar — that’s what I call it. It’s sort of an unconventional, asymmetrical act of warfare that we’ve involved in. And we didn’t necessarily start it. I mean, this fire has been burning.”
While the young man doesn’t have much experience in formal ethics theory, he is a fervent “propagandist” (in his own words) who preaches a philosophy of breaking the law to fight perceived injustices. He states, “Our people break laws, just like all people break laws. When we break laws, we do it in the service of civil disobedience. We do so ethically. We do it against targets that have asked for it.”
Mr. Brown’s latest effort is to personally attack and “harass” military personnel, law enforcement officials, and staff at the Quantico, Virginia military base where Bradley Manning is imprisoned. Anonymous members try to hack into the peoples’ personal accounts and attempt to post personal information and embarrassing details on internet message boards and other outlets.
The attacks are known as “doxing” to the group. They include trying to post details about the individuals’ families such as the names of their children and their home addresses.
The group is also attempting to accomplish a “complete communications shutdown” of phone lines and internet to the military base. He was careful to stress that he calls himself a “journalist” and is not involved personally in these attacks.
II. Who are Anonymous?
The group Anonymous is mostly composed of young U.S. hackers. The group shares a common interest in the image-board site 4Chan, which is where the group originally became active. The members’ skill levels and social positions vary wildly.
While the group ostensibly claims to be trying to “protect” morality and the law, its actions trend closely to anarchism. This is perhaps unsurprising in that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, considered a hero by many Anonymous members, penned a seminal work in the 90s glorifying “hactivism” in the name of anarchy.
Anonymous’ declaration of “war” against the governments of U.S. and Britain has brought intense law enforcement scrutiny on its members. In Britain, multiple members of Anonymous were arrested and detained.
By contrast the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations is executing a more patient investigation. It has raided many Anonymous members homes and is reportedly preparing a case that may name dozens of members.
One trouble spot for Anonymous may be in its use of botnets. While the group publicly claims to only use first-party distributed denial of service attack tools like “Low Impact Ion Cannon” (LOIC), some members of the group have reportedly taken to supplementing these attacks with botnet spamming from networks of infected computers.
While first party denial of service attacks are somewhat of a legal gray area, infected peoples’ machines and using them to attack businesses and the government is a much more blatant violation of federal computer laws.
III. Anonymous Says Business are Also on Its List of Targets
In its fight to “aid” Wikileaks, Mr. Brown says Anonymous is planning lots of attacks on businesses, in addition to the aforementioned attacks on federal entities and military personnel.
In response to businesses like Paypal, MasterCard, and Visa restricting funds to Wikileaks on the grounds that the site is supporting illegal activity, Anonymous is sending threatening letters.
One such letter reads:
We politely ask you to finally stand up and show some backbone. Unfreeze the [Wikileaks] account, or release the funds, so Bradley Manning and his lawyers can access it. Otherwise you prove you are nothing but a puppet of a criminal government, which is violating the Geneva Convention and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution…We are Anonymous. We do not forgive. We do not forget.
In addition to “politely asking” for changes in a threatening manner, it is also using DDoS attacks, and attempting even nastier hacking attacks to drive home what it says is its message.
Another recent victim of Anonymous was HBGary. Emails illegally obtained from Anonymous appear to show the firm being contracted by the Bank of America and possibly U.S. government officials in a campaign to discredit Wikileaks.
Additionally, Mr. Brown claims that the business had a copy of the “Stuxnet” virus, which the U.S. government is rumored to have used to infect and sabotage an Iranian nuclear facility. He states, “Yeah, its dangerous software. Shouldn’t have been floating around like that.”
HBGary officials have complained that members of Anonymous are personally harassing employees posting names and pictures of their children, among other person details. They say that some employees even have received death threats.
States Greg Hoglund, the CEO of HBGary and founder of HBGary Federal, “These are not hacktivists. They are criminals. They are breaking into computer systems and stealing information — and that violates multiple federal statutes. Anonymous is not what people think. They are vicious individuals and they are having the time of their lives because of all the press they are receiving.”
IV. War All of the Time
In the near future, Mr. Brown promises many, many more attacks in the U.S. He states, “We can expose people. We can go to the media with things, we can give them scoops. We can give them information about companies and their wrongdoing. We can organize protests —anywhere across the globe. We can get the attention of the national conversation if we need to.”
He adds, “I can tell you that our capabilities are such that, we can, for instance, go into the servers of a federal contracting company … take those servers down, delete backups, take all internal emails, take documents, shut down the websites of the owners of those companies, take everything from those websites, ruin the lives of people who have done it wrong … harass them, make sure they’ll never work again in this particular industry.”
With regards to the vicious personnel attacks on federal employees and contractors that his group is executing, Dallas, Texas native Mr. Brown joins other infamous Texans who fought the government, such as Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas.
But rather than bullets, their weapons are technology and information, which, when properly applied, can be almost as damaging. For his part, though, Mr. Brown shows no remorse — even when his group members personally attack the families of U.S. Military members. In his mind, it’s all “payback” for U.S. “wrongdoing”.
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