The Internet hacking collective known as Anonymous has declared “Operation Blitzkrieg” against neo-Nazi and other hate group websites in 2012, inflicting unprecedented damage on many of the sites and releasing an avalanche of personal information about supporters.
There’s been a clear uptick in Anonymous activities since last fall, an FBI spokesman told the Intelligence Report. And the amorphous international group is attracting more participants, adds Josh Shaul, chief technology officer at Application Security, Inc., a New York database security software firm. “You see more posts and more people involved than ever,” reports Shaul, who studies Internet message boards where hacking plans are hatched by the group and its spinoffs.
Following an online warning last year that Operation Blitzkrieg would target neo-Nazi groups, a raft of actions just since January attests to this new direction.
One of the most significant websites disabled in February was Stormfront.org, the first and largest white nationalist site in the world with a claimed 240,000 registered members. Run by former Ku Klux Klan leader Don Black, the multi-language, Florida-based forum teems with hateful propaganda about blacks, non-white immigrants, LGBT people and, above all, Jews. LulzFinancial, widely believed to be a spinoff of Anonymous, took credit for the attack on Stormfront.
Although the site was back up within a few days, many of its supporters may have lost their own anonymity: Anonymous revealed personal information of alleged members, publishing it all online and potentially scaring many away from this cyber-hive of hatred now that their personal invisibility can no longer be guaranteed.
In case participants didn’t get the message, a Stormfront regular warned online that if any supporter uses a real name, address or credit card number, “then you’ve handed the information over to them. You should be making donations with pre-paid debit cards only. … You guys are being trolled, HARD and some jew [sic] somewhere is laughing his butt off.”
Westboro Baptist Church Protesters
It wasn’t the first time so-called hacktivists have attacked Westboro. In an incident last year that still lives on YouTube, Westboro Church member Shirley Phelps-Roper and a man identified as affiliated with Anonymous were interviewed by syndicated radio and TV talk show host David Pakman. After Phelps-Roper defiantly denied that the group could shut off Westboro’s message, the Anonymous participant said, “I have a surprise for you, Shirley.” He then took down the group’s websites during the show, substituting a message from Anonymous, and Pakman confirmed the site defacement on-air.
In another attack on the hate front this year, Anonymous disabled the websites of the American Third Position (A3P), a California-based white supremacist group that aims to deport non-white immigrants and return the U.S. to white rule. It also hit sites owned by A3P presidential candidate Merlin Miller and James Kelso, the group’s webmaster, including Kelso’s WhiteNewsNow hate site.
Again, the release of private information about people who would generally much prefer to stay anonymous appeared more damaging than the temporary takedowns of sites. Anonymous published several thousand personal E-mails along with personal details of site visitors, their names, addresses and phone numbers, as well as forum messages.
In a mischievous kicker, Anonymous hacked the credit card of Kelso, who once worked for former KKK leader David Duke; under the Banner “Good Night, White Pride,” the group claimed online that it had used Kelso’s card to buy sex toys and make a donation to the anti-racist Anti-Defamation League. The ADL confirmed receipt of the donation. But in an E-mail to the Report, an ADL spokesman added: “While we understand that Anonymous was trying to be ‘thoughtful’ and arguably creative in sending ADL a donation, we do not support or encourage hacking and do not feel comfortable accepting the fruits of their illegal activity. We will return the donation.”
Anonymous seemed to delight in mocking A3P’s public persona as a relatively dignified hate group, what with leaders such as corporate attorney William D. Johnson and Kevin MacDonald, a psychology professor at California State University, Long Beach. In their online statement about the A3P hack, Anonymous spokesmen declared: “Although they try hard to maintain a professional public image to camouflage their vile racism, we’re now airing all their dirty laundry all over the internet.”
In other attacks on the far-right earlier this year, the hacktivist collective shut down the Web page of the Westland, Mich.-based American Nazi Party and 15 websites associated with the National Democratic Party (NDP), the major neofascist party in Germany. It also made public the identity of NDP supporters and donors, and dumped a huge trove of internal NDP E-mails onto the Internet.
At the same time that it hit neo-Nazi sites hard in 2012, Anonymous has hacked into a number of government and law enforcement Web pages. It has shut down, for brief periods, pages of the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, among other agencies. In a daring act that generated worldwide publicity, the anarchist collective hacked into a February conference call between the FBI and Scotland Yard in which investigators discussed two teenagers allegedly tied to Anonymous; the group posted a recording of the call online.
Most of the government hacks were meant to protest investigations of cyber-attacks and the prosecution of website owners practicing illegal Internet file-sharing. For example, in what it dubbed “Operation Payback,” the group retaliated against the Department of Justice for shutting down Megaupload, the massive file-sharing site. On the same day it hacked the Department of Justice last January, Anonymous also brought down websites of several groups lobbying for anti-piracy legislation: the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry of America and Universal Music.
Although they disagree with one another on myriad issues, Anonymous participants share an unwavering commitment to the free flow of information online, says Gabriella Coleman, Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University in Montreal. Coleman, an anthropologist, has spent the last four years studying Anonymous, interacting for countless hours in the group’s online channels and, she says, building relationships with the planners and doers. It’s impossible to tell exactly how many are in the group, as participation is fluid, she notes in a January article about the collective published by the online magazine, Triple Canopy. Coleman likens Anonymous to “a hydra … comprising numerous different networks and working groups that are often at odds with one another.” Without offering any alternate agenda, the group seems to have “tapped into a deep disenchantment with the political status quo,” suggests Coleman.
In addition to abhorrence of hate groups and Internet proprietary rights, Anonymous actions this year showed sympathy for immigrants and strong support for the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement.
A February takedown of Alabama government and law enforcement sites was a retaliatory strike against the brutal anti-immigrant law passed by that state. The law authorizes police to demand citizenship papers from adults, requires schools to check the immigration status of children and parents, and criminalizes certain business transactions with the undocumented.
Following an earlier hack, Anonymous in January released reams of private information—names, addresses, phone numbers and credit card data—of members of the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association, which is a union. Anonymous leaders said they did so in retaliation for purportedly grisly prison conditions in the state and alleged police brutality during OWS protests.
The hacktivist group played a key role in spearheading and publicizing OWS protests last fall, notes Daryle Lamont Jenkins of One People’s Project, a left-wing, anti-racist group. With its massive outreach on Twitter and in chat rooms, along with a dramatic video, Anonymous adopted the original call to street action from Adbusters, a little known, Vancouver-based magazine that set off the Occupy movement, and spread it worldwide. Anonymous participants also showed up en masse at many OWS sites wearing their signature Guy Fawkes masks.
What amazes so many is how such a shadowy, leaderless collective can manage to hack the CIA or a neo-Nazi site. The answer lies in a combination of vast outreach and cyber-sophistication—but not as much sophistication as you might think, says Josh Shaul, the Internet security expert.
The group’s “digital sit-ins”—temporarily shutting down countless Web pages in “denial of service” attacks — are very easy to bring off if many people have downloaded free software available on the Internet that allows them to cede control of their computer to another computer user. Participants active on Anonymous forums can, with a click, volunteer their computers to use in targeting certain websites during an attack. Other users, though, may be tricked into downloading the software, urged to click on something appealing, for example; they’re recruited by “bot farmers” who, in effect, go out into cyberspace to find people and then take control of their computers for a targeted attack. During a coordinated website attack, all of these users (willingly or not) call up the same website, bombarding it with requests to get in, and the website crashes. “If you’ve got the outreach, it’s devilishly simple and inexpensive,” says Shaul. “It’s really about having the guts to use the software this way.” Although Anonymous runs an online hacking school, most of its takedowns require more cyber “foot soldiers” than tech geniuses, Shaul explains. The big database dumps that release all kinds of personal information do require more skill, he adds, and fewer Anons are at this high level of tech savvy.
The recent upsurge in publicity sparked by Anonymous’ increasing activities can sometimes leave the impression that the group sprouted suddenly out of nowhere. But its beginnings can be traced to a computer message board called 4Chan, created in 2003 by 15-year-old Christopher Poole in his suburban New York bedroom. People began to post photos and messages on his topic forums; since no name is required, many posted as “Anonymous.” The site grew rapidly, buzzing with funny videos, adolescent “gotcha” pranks and raunchy language. Eventually, discussions turned toward politics, which ushered in the current era of Anonymous actions.
With its staunch opposition to government secrecy, the group also has lashed out against opponents of WikiLeaks, the free-speech website that has published millions of leaked government documents. In December 2010, Anons launched “Operation Payback” by hacking PayPal, MasterCard and Visa because the companies refused to process donations to WikiLeaks.
The PayPal site defacement led to the largest FBI crackdown on alleged Anonymous hackers so far. Last July, 16 were arrested in the U.S., mostly for the PayPal action. Another five were arrested in March with the aid of an FBI informant, an alleged hacker with the Anonymous spinoff, LulzSec, who helped authorities gather evidence in return for a plea bargain. There also have been other arrests in the U.S., as well as Europe and South America.
The arrests have driven many Anonymous participants even further underground, onto obscure websites and into varied offshoot groups, experts say. Participants are tough to find, as they often work out of pirated servers, some overseas. But the FBI says it has a vigorous investigation under way. “It’s taken a fair amount of FBI resources over the last year,” a spokesman says.
Nobody knows exactly where Anonymous will strike next since participants embrace no single agenda but instead endorse the cybernetic civil disobedience they consider justified in the face of allegedly corrupt institutions. In a dramatic new documentary on the group, one supporter compares Anons to the all-American hero Huckleberry Finn, who resigned himself to jail and burning in hell rather than turn in his friend Jim, a slave. Another participant complains that credit card companies will process donations to the KKK and Westboro Baptist Church but not to WikiLeaks, a subverter of government secrecy. The documentary, “We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists,” debuted at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, in January. Los Angeles filmmaker Brian Knappenberger hopes to take it into wider distribution this year.
So far, the hacktivists’ actions have been relatively limited, though by no means trivial. Striking terror into groups and people who fear great damage may be its greatest “achievement” so far, suggests Shaul. For example, he and a co-author had a book deal with a major publisher that wanted the story of Anonymous. Shaul worked on it for many months, but, he says, the publisher cancelled the deal last Christmas Eve “for fear they’d be ruined. They were frightened that Anonymous would digitally rape and pillage their organization.”
He thinks Anons haven’t been particularly bad people but sees potential danger if they’re used in the future by malevolent tech wizards “to do stuff that’s a lot worse”—taking down a city’s power or water system, or State Department hacks that critically injure the U.S. Shaul is not alone in such fears. Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, has warned in White House meetings that Anonymous hackers may be able to cause a limited power outage within a couple of years, according to a Wall Street Journal report this February. Anonymous participants, however, called the report false fear-mongering.
NATO warned in a report last summer that Anons could hack into sensitive government, military and corporate files. (Shortly after the report became public, Anonymous hacked NATO.) And in January, FBI director Robert Mueller predicted that cyber attacks will become the No. 1 threat to the country, surpassing terrorism. His testimony before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee was affirmed by James Clapper, director of national intelligence, who said non-state hackers are becoming more active. Clapper singled out Anonymous and its spinoff, LulzSec.
Anonymous message board conversations and video warnings suggest a possible big release of secret government and corporate Web data in the fall of 2012 before Dec. 21, the date when the Mayan calendar ends and, some claim, the world along with it. Maybe it’s bluff, maybe not. But for those who’ve already suffered the attentions of Anonymous—in particular, cyber-Nazis who dread seeing their names and associations made public—the threat is already real enough.
“[T]he fallout from this is going to be tremendous,” one Stormfronter wrote after media reports about Canadian members having their identities made public, and “a lot of people are going to lose jobs.” Added another: “I tell you what mate if ANY telephone numbers that have been passed between my friends via my PM [private message] system start to get any threats there will be hell to pay.”
Some extremists were more optimistic. “Let’s see them get a WN [white nationalist] website with high security,” scoffed one Stormfront poster. But he or she may have been showing a little more bravado than justified.
“They did,” retorted “Sigfrid.” “People don’t seem to understand. People with great hacker abilities can get into any website. As I’ve stated before, if they can get into high security websites anywhere, like Microsoft, government websites, security websites, and even the FBI, CIA and the NSA, they can get into anything.”
Evelyn Schlatter contributed to this article