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Hacktivists make their causes known online while masked in anonymity

A woman uses her computer keyboard to type while surfing the internet in North Vancouver, B.C. “Digital dissent” by hackers is a serious problem for companies and governments, as well as other groups that become targeted. — File photo by The Canadian Press


Digital dissenters known as hacktivists have developed a track record for disruption and attracting attention and are now considered one of the three main groups of attackers online, says security software company Websense.

Websense prefers not to talk specifically about hacker groups such as Anonymous or Lulzsec, but highlighted the general rise of these groups in recent years.

Hacktivists use the web for dissent rather than holding public protests, said Patrik Runald, director of security research at Websense Security Labs.

“If you look at the attacks that these hacktivists groups have done, it’s typically because they don’t agree with something or they want to embarrass an organization,” Runald said from San Diego, Calif.

The work of hacker collective Anonymous has spawned no shortage of headlines.

Anonymous has taken credit for such acts as releasing the personal information of more than 4,000 bank executives on a U.S. government website.

It also reposted personal and professional information of members of the American Westboro Baptist Church after they tweeted they would picket the funerals of the 20 children who were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Hacktivists join cyber thieves and sophisticated attackers, including some state-sponsored agents, as the three main types of online attackers, he said.

“You can get a lot of attention by disrupting financial systems or by hacking into well-known organizations,” Runald said.

But hacktivism isn’t as bad as it was a year or two ago, Runald said, adding hacker groups may be picking their causes more carefully.

“But those same actors are still out there. It’s not that there has been a ton of arrests. Even if there had been, there’s always people to take their place,” he said.

“On the Internet, you can make it a lot harder for authorities to track down who you are.”

Last spring, a variety of Quebec government websites were hacked by self-described Anonymous acti­vists due to the government’s anti-protest law directed at student demonstrators protesting tuition hikes.

Anonymous also took credit for publishing the personal information of a number of Formula One car-race ticket holders during the student protests.

In addition, Anonymous has previously claimed responsibility for attacks on credit card companies Visa Inc. and MasterCard Inc. and eBay Inc.’s PayPal.

Carleton University associate professor Anil Somayaji said different groups of people at different times have used the name “Anonymous.”

“There’s no organization that you can call up and say, ‘Let me talk to Anonymous,”’ said Somayaji, who teaches at Carleton’s School of Computer Science in Ottawa.

“That’s what makes large organizations nervous, because there’s no well defined way to stop it. There’s no one to target.

“The Internet gives small groups of people leverage in various ways.”

Efforts to unmask these groups will get them angry and they will “come after you,” he added.

Runald noted the example of U.S. security firm HBGary International and its dealings with Anonymous. HBGary had compiled names of members of Anonymous in 2011 and was preparing to go public when it was hacked by the group and its servers were broken into, emails were published and data destroyed.

Canada’s spy agency has said Anonymous isn’t just a thorn in the side of the powerful, but the new model for digital hacktivism.

A declassified report from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has said although hacktivism — a blend of hacker smarts and social activism — has existed for years, it is only now that conditions have allowed such groups to bloom.

“Anonymous is the face of modern hacktivism,” the spy agency report said.

Runald said he doesn’t consider WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange a hacktivist because to the “best of our knowledge he isn’t the guy who hacks into anything” — information is sent to him from hackers. WikiLeaks published about 250,000 secret U.S. State Department cables in December 2010.

Runald noted that when an organization has been hit by hacktivists, hacktivists don’t keep it a secret.

“They will talk about it. You don’t do a protest in silence, because what’s the point.”

Organizations: Websense Security Labs., American Westboro Baptist Church, Sandy Hook Elementary School Visa MasterCard Inc. EBay Inc. PayPal.Carleton University Carleton School of Computer Science HBGary International Canadian Security Intelligence Service U.S. State Department

Geographic location: U.S., San Diego, CaliforniaThe, Newtown, Conn.Hacktivists Quebec Ottawa Canada

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Recent comments

  • you mad?
    February 21, 2013 - 06:09

    A typical ignorant anti-anonymous comment right there ^^^^^ How can you call this the "WORST" kind of thuggery, when you have RAPE, MURDERS, ... If you could compare this at all you could say anonymous breaks into a building destorys files or steals files. They sometimes make spare keys so they can get into the building whenever they want. Do you call that the worst kind of thuggery? Do you have children? Probably doesn't even matter what they say to you, because I can tell from your post that you have done no investigating into anonymous whatsoever. How can you even call them racist, when anymonous has members all over the frigging world? Hackers are from anywhere in the world. Hacks get done using IRC, anonymous chats, by people from ALL OVER THE FKING WORLD. It doesn't matter if you are white, black, grey or purple.

  • Catherine Fitzpatrick
    February 19, 2013 - 06:33

    This article is typical of pro-Anonymous propaganda that seeks to portray this vigilante cult as some sort of legitimate social activist group. It's not. It engages in the worst kind of thuggery, replete with misogyny, racism and vicious hatred of anyone or group that wishes to use the Internet freely in ways they don't approve of. Unless you want a crypto-totalitarian movement to take over your society, you need to start reporting more credibly on these thugs and security firms should be prodded into being less admiring and perpetuating their fun playmates. Victims should document and report their attacks.