A ‘hacktivist’ group, using the loose label of Anonymous, recently gained huge notoriety for what has been called ‘Operation Avenge Assange’.
In January 2011, five UK members were arrested, all in their teens or early twenties, with the FBI issuing more than 40 more search warrants across the US for alleged Anonymous hackers.
The group claims to have brought down the websites of Visa, Mastercard and PayPal after these companies withdrew their support from Wikileaks in the aftermath of the leaked diplomatic cables scandal.
In the US, those found guilty face up to 10 years imprisonment.
The attacks, known as a coordinated distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) – a way of flooding a website with so much information it shuts down - took place while Wikileaks’ editor Julian Assange was on bail and staying in a Norfolk country house, facing deportation to Sweden on sexual assault charges.
Last week, in retaliation to the five arrests, Anonymous released a call to arms in an ‘open letter’ to the British government declaring war on the UK.
“We take this as a serious declaration of war from yourself, the UK government, to us, Anonymous, the people," their statement said.
"You can easily arrest individuals, but you cannot arrest an ideology. We are united by a common objective and we can and WILL cross any borders to achieve that.”
Anonymous evolved from an online message board known as 4chan.
Although 4chan might be regarded as novices to some, and is recognised as the originator of ‘LOLcats’ – a website dedicated to pictures of cats with humorous captions – their organisation is nothing less than infamous.
The group have been using the DDoS attacks for a number of years and have forced many targeted websites offline.
Victims of these cyber attacks include the Church of Scientology, the Australian government and rock star Gene Simmons.
Sam Bowne, ethical hacking professor at the City College San Francisco, told Arts London News that governments must realise that there are many more organisations with a similar agenda to Wikileaks and Anonymous, and that information can no longer be silenced in the way it could before.
“A little while ago, the US military decided it didn’t want a book to get out [Operation Dark Heart, by Lt Col Shaffer] so they purchased all of the copies and burned them. This would have been stupid in the 1800s, ridiculous in the 20th century, but it’s absolutely unbelievable now. It was no surprise when Assange chimed in, with a copy up on Wikileaks,” Bowne says.
“As far as I can tell, they [Anonymous] are just bored teenagers. But they have been getting a lot of media attention for being a pack of under stimulated kids. Some news channels have even gone as far as to label them ‘terrorists’. The American government is also taking a firm stance, with reports of arrests connected with both recent and older attacks.”
Surprisingly, getting in touch with Anonymous is easier than getting in contact with most politicians.
No PR companies are necessary; the group uses the internet to mobilise their troops and, clearly aware of the importance of the press, they are professional and courteous.
Using Internet Relay Chat (IRC) – a basic real-time Internet chat room – to conduct the interviews, Arts London News spoke to ‘Topiary’ and ‘Evilworks’ (both pseudonyms), two members of Anonymous.
’Topiary’ said: “I'd say one of the major results of our attacks has been gaining attention for Wikileaks, and inspiring people to get to know their governments more, to read more and to really start thinking instead of slouching along apathetically. Some might not see this as a real accomplishment, but I think it's a seed that can grow into great things.”
Among the organisations that have been hacked by Anonymous are the Irish centre-right party Fine Gael.
The party got its website replaced with a banner reading: “Nothing is safe, you put your faith in this political party and they take no measures to protect you. They offer free speech yet they censor your voice. WAKE UP!”
The US government issued a subpoena to social networking site Twitter demanding information affiliated to WikiLeaks accounts, a move that has been branded ‘harassment’ by legal experts in the US.
“It’s always been a dirty game. Those with money will always use legal means to tailor things to their advantage. We don’t care. We knew how it was going to be before we started,” commented ‘Evilworks’.
With the recent uprises in Egypt and Tunisia, Anonymous has again been active.
“The fight’s getting dirtier, hacking government websites is taking it up a notch, whereas DDoS attacks are almost symbolic,” said ‘Topiary’.
“We punish targets depending on what they deserve,” he continues, “PayPal et al did not deserve to be hacked, they were cowardly in turning away from Wikileaks as they did, but they’re not oppressing or abusing their customers. The Tunisian government, on the other hand...”
When the word hierarchy is mentioned during the interview, someone who hasn’t spoken in half an hour, called ‘FK’, says: “NO! We do not believe in hierarchies,” before falling silent again.
Topiary explains further: “There can be something considered departments, in the loosest sense of the word. The press department, the design department, the deface department, the writers, the lurkers, the web hosts, IRC hosts. We don’t even like these divisions, we don’t publicise this. It’s just ‘Anonymous’.
“The idea is sparked. Facebook or Twitter Anonymous account holders spread the word, designers make the posters, defacers map up our targets and prepare for attack, lurkers lurk, writers write. We gain support from the rest of the internet. It’s a really smooth and leaderless process where nobody is pointed out as an individual. There is an idea of acting like a swarm.”
Their activities haven’t gone without notice. An anti-Jihad hacktivist called “th3j35t3r” (The Jester) has started a war with Anonymous.
Little is known about The Jester, but Bowne says: “If what he says is true – which you can’t guarantee – he’s a 30-something former US military guy who is currently unemployed and has nothing better to do than taking down Islamic militant websites all day. He made a poor decision in taking down Wikileaks’, as he has now become an enemy of Anonymous. Bored teenagers will spend thousands of hours tracking him for anything they can find.”
'Topiary' disagrees: “I still see Jester as irrelevant. He hasn't done anything and his anti-Jihad campaign is ineffective. He leeches onto us for attention because he's gotten none in the last year. He is important for some of Anonymous, yes. But Anonymous is so encompassing of the net that someone within it is always giving something attention.”
It is hard to condemn behaviour that is essentially peaceful protest; if they are as sensible and committed as they say, they will fight worthwhile causes and continue until they are arrested.
The fluidity of their organisation can only come from like-minded individuals working together, and it testifies to their longevity.
If Anonymous seem trivial, an incident revealed in the diplomatic cables regarding the Stuxnet worm might be more alarming.
Stuxnet is a virus that is said to have attacked large targets in Iran that relate to nuclear activities.
Developments with Stuxnet mean that it can now break hardware, not just corrupt software.
Kapersky, an internet security firm, called it ‘a working and fearsome prototype of a cyber-weapon that will lead to the creation of a new arms race in the world.’
When comparing Stuxnet to the Anonymous feud, Bowne says: “Stuxnet seems more responsible and planned. It’s a very sensible objective as far as I can tell. No one beside their government wants Iran to have nuclear weapons and the worm was a bloodless way of achieving this.
"The power of the worm is astounding. They’ve taken cyber warfare to a new level in that it accomplished a military objective as well as a bomb or a rocket may have, that’s a huge step forward."
It seems that we are entering a new era of warfare, with drones and computer viruses replacing soldiers and bombs.
It is now ominously certain that terrorism, and 'hacktivism', will become more apparent in the digital arena.