Image via Wikipedia
An online “hacktivist” group that brought down the websites of perceived opponents of WikiLeaks has itself become the target of an international police crackdown.
The London Metropolitan Police arrested five men in connection with a recent spate of attacks by Anonymous, behind last month’s revenge assault on the websites of a number of organisations that had severed links with WikiLeaks.
In the US, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said it executed “more than 40” search warrants on Thursday to gather evidence likely to lead to arrests.
The FBI said it was working on the case along with the UK, “authorities in the Netherlands, Germany and France”. Spokeswoman Jenny Shearer said no US arrests had been made by late afternoon on Thursday. “Evidence is being gathered and the investigation is ongoing”, she said. “These things do take time”.
The Met’s e-Crime unit said five men aged between 15 and 26 were being held following a swoop on residential addresses in the West Midlands, Northamptonshire, Hertfordshire, Surrey and London on Thursday morning in the UK in relation to offences under the Computer Misuse Act 1990.
The maximum penalty under the UK act is 10 years imprisonment and a £5,000 fine. The FBI said those convicted in the US also could face 10-year sentences.
Anonymous, a disparate group of online activists that has previously carried out campaigns against the Church of Scientology and the record industry, claimed last month’s attacks on companies including MasterCard and PayPal were a response to attempts to hinder WikiLeaks’ freedom of speech campaign.
The internet activists used a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, overloading the targeted websites by bombarding them with requests. “Facilitating or conducting a DDoS attack is illegal”, the FBI said. “The victims included major US companies across several industries”.
An FBI spokeswoman told the FT that the US warrants were under seal. Since the attack software distributed by Anonymous members does not disguise the internet addresses of those participating in the electronic assaults, former law enforcement officers have predicted that traffic logs from the companies affected would lead to internet service providers – the likely recipients of at least some of Thursday’s search warrants – and then in short order to the attackers themselves.
In response to the UK arrests, Anonymous issued an open letter to the government via Twitter, the messaging site, explaining that it saw DDoS attacks as the modern digital equivalent of a sit-in demonstration, rather than a criminal action.
“Just as is the case with traditional forms of protest, we block access to our opponents infrastructure to get our message across,” the letter said. “It is clear then, that arresting somebody for taking part in a DDoS attack is exactly like arresting somebody for attending a peaceful demonstration in their hometown.”
The letter accused the arrests of being “politically motivated, and were being carried out under pressure from the US government”, adding that the potential punishments were disproportionate.
Activity in Anonymous chat rooms has been subdued recently. Activists have been fretting about a rumoured international “swoop” by the authorities since mid-December. Dutch police arrested two teenagers last month in connection with the DDoS attacks.
“Most of us have been laying low for a good while now. People were getting arrested and our VPN [virtual private network] got taken down by the feds [police],” one Anon told the FT on Wednesday.
He said that recent arrests had exposed a weakness in the group’s shroud of anonymity. “They logged our IRC [internet relay chat] servers … stupid people. So the feds know about every one of us.”
One of the Dutch people arrested has been released but the other remains in “deep trouble”, the Anon said.
French police launched an investigation in the immediate aftermath of the cyberattack by Anonymous. In December they detained a 15-year-old on suspicion of participating in the hacking, holding her for several hours of questioning, according to a report on the website of Le Parisien newspaper. The girl was later released, but an inquiry is underway to determine her exact involvement, the paper says.
The WikiLeaks website and its controversial founder, Julian Assange, are immersed in a political storm following the leak highly sensitive US government cables.
Earlier this month, it emerged that Twitter had been asked to hand over documents to the US government including internet addresses and phone numbers of Mr Assange and WikiLeaks supporters in multiple countries.
Many lawyers say the US government faces stiff obstacles in its bid to build a case for the extradition of Mr Assange. The Pentagon describes as “premature” reports that the US government had failed to establish a link between Mr Assange and Bradley Manning, a former US intelligence official, facing charges of leaking classified information.
But establishing conspiracy charges against the two, or prosecuting Mr Assange on other grounds, could prove especially demanding.
Meanwhile, Mr Assange will appear in court next month to decide whether he should be extradited to Sweden in connection with alleged sex crimes.
Undeterred by the furore surrounding WikiLeaks, the group’s former spokesman this week launched his own whistleblowing website. Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s OpenLeaks website bills itself as “a non-profit community and service provider for whistleblowers and organisations, media, and individuals who engage in promoting transparency. It makes leaking at a local, grassroot level possible and allows for certain scalability.”