Rise of the Hacktivists

Israeli government websites shut down after hacker threat.

Two days after a “hacktivist” group called Anonymous threatened cyber attacks on the Israeli government for its blockade on Gaza, the websites of the Israeli Defense Forces Spokesman Unit, Shin Bet and Mossad have been taken down. The Israeli government denies that Anonymous is responsible, but the timing is impeccable.

On Friday, Anonymous released a video on YouTube pledging to attack Israel if it intercepted a flotilla delivering aid to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. “We do not tolerate this kind of repeated offensive behavior against unarmed civilians…if you continue blocking humanitarian vessels to Gaza…then you will leave us no choice but to strike back again and again until you stop,”  the video threatened.

The Israeli military was not deterred and did not allow the ships to break the blockade. On Sunday, the aforementioned government websites unexpectedly went off-line. The Israeli government says it is due to a “server error” and Anonymous is not responsible. Though the cause is yet to be determined, it is clear that the threat from cyber vigilantes like Anonymous is growing.

Anonymous lacks an official hierarchy. This sometimes leads to confusion, such as when it was reported that Anonymous was planning on bringing down Facebook on November 5. There was also disagreement among factions over whether to target the New York Stock Exchange. One faction briefly disabled its website on October 10. Similarly, when the online Playstation video-gaming network was disabled, Anonymous denied responsibility and said that it had been framed.

The members do not have a common ideology or cause, and the hackers pick and choose which operations they want to support. “We have this agenda that we all agree on and we all coordinate and act, but all act independently toward it, without any want for recognition,” a member of Anonymous said. The group was established in 2003 and its members call themselves “Anons.” It is easy to join the Internet-based group but your membership is rescinded the second that your identity becomes known.

Operations are pitched in online chatrooms that sometimes have up to 600 participants at one time. It is in these forums that the plots are discussed and members decide if they want to become involved. It is not uncommon for a “hacktivist” to participate in a single operation related to an issue he holds dear and then to never return. The general operation consists of using a botnet that overwhelms a website with traffic, overloading the servers. These botnets are purchased online for $5-10,000 from websites like that of the criminal Russian Business Network. Amazon.com’s huge server capacity enabled it to defeat an Anonymous botnet attack last Christmas.

Anonymous and other “hacktivists” like LulzSec have attacked all sorts of governments and companies for assorted reasons. They have claimed attacks on the CIA, NASA, NATO, San Francisco's mass transit system, the Boston Police Department, an FBI contractor, the Westboro Baptist Church, the Church of Scientology and many others. In July, it infiltrated a U.S. government contractor named Mantech International Corporation and leaked private communication about its work with NATO. Mantech offers cyber security as one of its services. Booz Allen Hamilton was also hacked and over 90,000 military email addresses were released, as well as passwords and internal data.

The group admires Julian Assange, the anti-American founder of Wikileaks. It carried out reprisals against Paypal, Mastercard and Visa when they decided to refuse service to Wikileaks, causing the organization to now teeter on the edge of bankruptcy. In July, 16 alleged Anonymous members throughout the U.S., one in Britain and four in the Netherlands, were arrested for the attacks on Paypal. In retaliation, Anonymous announced that it hacked into about 70 law enforcement websites in the U.S. and stole 10 gigabytes of data. The information included credit card numbers, private emails and tips from citizens.

Once the Arab Spring began, it struck websites of the governments of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya and published hundreds of emails and passwords of Arab officials. Anonymous attacked the website of the Syrian Defense Ministry and posted an image of the Syrian flag before the Baathist regime took over along with a message asking soldiers to protect the protesters. In October, Anonymous stole 10,000 internal emails from the Iranian Foreign Ministry.

Anonymous also takes aim at the news media. It hacked into the Twitter account of NBC News shortly before the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and posted a tweet reporting that there had been a terrorist attack at Ground Zero. It also threatened to attack the website of FOX News Channel for its criticism of the “Occupy Wall Street” protest on November 5, but nothing happened.

Consumers of child pornography are a special target for Anonymous members. In October, the group attacked hidden, anonymous websites used for sharing such material. It then released the IP addresses of 190 people. Anonymous says it target 40 hidden websites for exchanges of child pornography in “Operation Darknet,” taking down over 100 gigabytes of material.

Most recently, Anonymous very publicly clashed with the Zetas drug cartel of Mexico. It said that the traffickers had kidnapped one of its members in Veracruz. “You have made a great mistake by taking one of us. Free him,” Anonymous warned. It threatened to release the names of taxi drivers, police officers and journalists that were secretly working with the Zetas. The drug cartel freed the hacker and warned Anonymous that if the data was released, it’d make his family pay the consequences and 10 people would be murdered for every name published.

The world has entered an age where individuals around the world can collaborate to bring pain to their adversaries. These “hacktivists” are decentralized and operate out of private homes, often without even meeting each other or knowing what their partners look like. Tackling these “hacktivists” is an incredibly tough task, but it’s a task that cannot be ignored.

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