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The controversy surrounding WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has started a heated cyber war between Mr Assange’s supporters and a group of patriotic Americans.
And a Sydney member of the pro-WikiLeaks cyber attackers has revealed he is disillusioned with the group, saying they “couldn’t organise a piss-up in a pub”.
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Last week, a group of loose-knit cyber attackers dubbed Anonymous took down the websites of MasterCard, Visa and PayPal in retaliation for the companies’ refusal to process WikiLeaks-related transactions following pressure from US politicians.
The attacks were named “Operation Payback” but now a group of American nationalists is counter-attacking Anonymous under the banner “Operation Fightback”.
“For the continued defense of our nations (sic) people & businesses,” the tagline of the new group’s Twitter page, @AnonymousDown, reads, above a link to a YouTube clip of “God Bless the USA”.
“Malicious tactics being employed by the Anonymous movement will not be tolerated … freedom of speech is one thing, personal and corporate infrastructure is another,” the operator of the Twitter page wrote.
Using the same methods as Anonymous – distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, which flood servers with millions of requests – the Operation Fightback group has been able to seriously disrupt Anonymous’s operations and prevent it from launching new attacks.
Anonymous members used a software application called Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC) to launch their attacks, which received its instructions on which targets to attack from an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel.
A Sydney-based member of Anonymous, who spoke to this website last week, said today that the IRC server used by the group had been knocked offline by the Operation Fightback counter-attackers. This had prevented them from launching new attacks.
“It seems to be going to hell in a bucket,” he said in a phone interview.
The man said that, in addition to attacking the Anonymous IRC servers, the Operation Fightback group had also been putting up fake targets to confuse Anonymous members and get them to attack the wrong IP addresses.
“There are still people hanging around on the Operation Payback channel and trying to co-ordinate attacks and the last known target was Mastercard.com, but that seems to be falling apart because of both the DDoS on the IRC channel as well as people getting IP banned when they launch attacks against Mastercard.com,” he said.
“Mastercard.com administrators appear to be actively monitoring incoming packets and they’re doing IP blocks on wherever an attack is coming from.”
Anonymous members are just ‘script kiddies’
The Sydney Anonymous member has grown increasingly disillusioned with his colleagues over the weekend, saying today that they were “really just ordinary dumb shit kids” who do not know much about network technology.
He said attacks on PayPal failed for the most part because PayPal had a sophisticated server farm that could not be knocked out by a DDoS attack, and the Anonymous members were hitting the wrong target.
“If they would’ve gone after PayPal’s domain name server [DNS] they would have been able to shut down PayPal entirely but they didn’t know enough about network technology to work that out,” he said.
The Sydney Anonymous member said the group had also failed in similar attempts to attack Amazon, which last week refused to host WikiLeaks files. Some of Amazon’s European websites suffered a half-hour outage over the weekend but it was not clear whether this was caused by cyber attacks.
He said that, rather than being full-blown hackers, the Anonymous members were “script kiddies” who only knew how to download the LOIC program and run it.
“They’re very unprofessional, illogical and irrational and very much their actions are based upon emotions,” he said.
“They don’t organise well, they don’t co-ordinate well and it’s a lot like CB radio back in the 1970s – people farting into the microphone. These people couldn’t organise a piss-up in a pub.”
Contrary to the group’s name, Anonymous members who used the LOIC program to attack targets could easily be traced and identified, The University of Twente in Holland said in new research. Dutch police have already arrested two teenagers over the attacks.
James Lewis, a specialist in cyber security at Washington think tank the Centre for International and Strategic Studies, played down the attacks, saying it was more like a “noisy political demonstration” than a cyber war as only websites were knocked out, not back-end systems.
“For me, this is political theater, kabuki – entertaining and perhaps influential, but much less than war,” he said.
Change of strategy
While there is no central command structure to Anonymous and several splinter groups have formed, a statement put out over the weekend said Anonymous was changing tactics, abandoning its strategy of online attacks on organisations seen as hostile to WikiLeaks.
In an overnight blog post, Anonymous said it now aimed to publish parts of the confidential US diplomatic cables as widely as possible and in ways that made them as hard as possible to trace.
“We have, at best, given them a black eye. The game has changed. When the game changes, so too must our strategies,” said the blog post announcing “Operation: Leakspin”.
The activists are now encouraging supporters to search through leaked cables on the WikiLeaks site and publish summaries of ones that have been least exposed, labelling them so they are hard to find by any authority seeking to quash them.
“Use misleading tags, everything from ‘Tea Party’ to ‘Bieber’. Post snippets of the leaks everywhere,” the blog said, referring to the US grassroots conservative movement and the 16-year-old Canadian pop phenomenon Justin Bieber.
US charges imminent
Mr Assange is in isolation at London’s Wandsworth prison awaiting hearings related to Sweden’s request to extradite him to face sexual misconduct allegations.
Mr Assange’s Swedish lawyer, Bjorn Hurtig, who is defending the Australian-born activist in the Swedish rape investigation, told Britain’s Daily Mail that he has seen secret police documents that prove he is innocent of rape claims made against him by two women in Stockholm.
One of his other lawyers, Jennifer Robinson, has said an indictment brought by the US under the Espionage Act, over separate allegations that Mr Assange unlawfully leaked hundreds of thousands of US State Department cables, was imminent.
The Australian Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, seemed to be at odds with the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, when he said that, despite suggestions by Mr McClelland that Mr Assange’s passport may be cancelled, the final decision rested exclusively with him.
Ms Gillard and Mr McClellend have accused Mr Assange of undertaking illegal acts but have since been unable to specify exactly which laws he had broken. Mr Rudd has blamed the diplomatic cable leaks on the US, saying it did not secure its systems.
Over the weekend Mr McClelland said it could be a year before the Australian Federal Police was able to determine whether WikiLeaks committed a criminal act.
Efforts to stem the embarrassing leaks could be futile as, even if WikiLeaks is shut down, competing sites will spring up immediately to take its place. One site, Openleaks, staffed by WikiLeaks defectors, is due to launch this week.