Morning Wrap: Mastercard and 'Anonymous' Hacker Group -- Technological Warfare?

Wednesday, December 08, 2010 - 12:46 PM, PayPal, and other sites are suffering large-scale attacks from a hacker group called “Anonymous”. The group claims it’s retaliating against companies that have stopped working with WikiLeaks.

Are these prankster antics or the start of a technological war?

Anonymous is calling the attacks part of an “Operation Payback" campaign. It's claimed to hit other companies that have cut ties to WikiLeaks, including PayPal and the Swiss bank PostFinance.

The group released a statement headlined, “Operation Avenge Assange,” which states: "The first serious infowar is now engaged. The field of battle is WikiLeaks. You are the troops," and said it would begin denial of service attacks on PayPal. It announced today's attacks on Mastercard on its Twitter feed. According to ArsTechnica, “Twitter has also been named as a future attack target, due to its claimed censorship of the #wikileaks hashtag.”

We followed this story all morning long as it developed. New York Times reporter Ravi Somaiya has spoken with people within Anonymous. Here's how he views today's hacks:

You used the correct phrase in asymmetrical warfare.You have these big and well established companies, and indeed the U.S. government, against a completely disparate and kind of organization-less but very, very highly motivated and nebulous group of ... everything from kids to armchair activists. From my conversations with members of Anonomous, it seems like, among that great number are some genuine hacking experts who have, as we’ve seen this morning with Mastercard, a real ability to have an effect on very well established and I would imagine well protected websites.

The interesting thing is that Anonymous has followed through on a threat they issued earlier this week and it seems like the battle lines have been increasingly drawn in what seems like it will be an ongoing war — especially with Julian Assange being made a martyr yesterday and put in jail.

Wired staff writer Ryan Singel weighed in on how much power the group has: 

Anonymous hangs out on a message board, which no one visits unless they want to see the most vile corners of the Internet called 4Chan ... This has happened before. Anonymous targeted Scientology ... and people ended up in jail for doing that, so it’s not without consequences. But it’s very clear that there are ways for individuals to exercise power that they couldn't before.

So how does the goverrnment or corporations deal with that kind of power?  Well, maybe they can't. Here's New York Times reporter Ravi Somaiya:

It’s exactly the same as insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq. Security agencies aren't wired up to chase down hundreds of thousands or millions of nebulous people who are taking part in a very widely distributed attack, who are often nameless and who drop in and out as the wind strikes them. One of the strengths of Anonymous is that it’s anonymous, and very hard to track the members.

Lauren Bloom, business ethics consultant, thinks that difficulty in tracking might mean increased regulation:

I think the government may step in ... The thing that’s unfortunate about this is that up until now the Internet has been a wonderful venue for free communication and freedom of ideas, and unfortunately when people abuse that freedom, as I fear WikiLeaks has done, government tends to come down hard ... which means we may see some pretty strong efforts to regulate what has up until now been a pretty free community.

As always, let us know what you think. Robert from New Jersey comments:

Lauren Bloom's analogy to a detonation and Mitch Connell's comments that Assange is a high tech terrorist appear to equate this to 9/11 and will usher in a new era of government laws and regs over the internet. Patriotic Act part 2.

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