|An Inside Look at the "Hactivist" Takedown of Visa After WikiLeaks Cut Off|
Mike Ludwig - t r u t h o u t
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December 09, 2010
Web pirates are waging cyberwarfare in defense of WikiLeaks, and I had a rare glimpse into the hacktivists' hidden world of Internet sabotage in a secret chat room as the faceless hackers orchestrated the attack that temporarily shut down www.Visa.com on Wednesday evening.
Hidden behind screen names like Power2All and Bizzaro, hacktivists involved in the Operation Payback campaign logged into a temporary and remote Internet relay chat (IRC) room to share information on the ongoing Visa attack, swap web addresses, tell jokes and give updates on the international media coverage of their cyberwar against the enemies of WikiLeaks and free information.
An anti-authoritarian organization - if you can call it organized - called Anonymous launched Operation Payback revenge attacks against Mastercard, Visa and PayPal after the companies began blocking donations to WikiLeaks in light of the recent release of thousands of US diplomatic cables.
Amid pornographic images and nasty jokes, I found a link to the Operation Payback IRC on a thread at 4Chan.org, an open source image posting site. Anonymous and its supporters sometimes post announcements and flashy anti-copyright propaganda on 4Chan.org despite complaints from regular users, who seem more interested in naked woman and bathroom humor.
Earlier this week, Anonymous activists temporarily shut down the web sites of a server that dropped the WikiLeaks domain name and a Swiss bank that froze the defense fund for WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange. Anonymous is not affiliated with WikiLeaks.
The Anonymous hacktivists used DDoS attacks, a popular hacking technique that floods web site servers with too many requests, to temporarily shut down the sites.
Mastercard.com went down early Wednesday morning, and by mid-afternoon chat rooms frequented by hackers were buzzing with plans to take down Visa. A now-defunct Operation Payback Twitter feed soon called for an attack on the Visa web site, and by 5:00 p.m. EST the web site went down.
Here's a tweet that called for the attack:
|TARGET: WWW.VISA.COM :: FIRE FIRE FIRE!!! WEAPONS http://bit.ly/e6iR3X ::: SET YOUR LOIC TO irc.anonops.net ::: #DDOS #PAYBACK #WIKILEAKS|
As the hacktivists attacked Visa, their IRC conversations revealed the chaotic and decentralized nature of Anonymous. Updates on the status of the Visa web site came in from Germany, Korea, the Netherlands and the US. Some users issued orders and codes laced in hacker jargon, and some users seemed confused and in need of direction to a central attack point called "the HIVE."
Others simply made it clear that there is no room for leaders in cyberanarchy.
At one point it was announced that Twitter and Facebook had taken down Operation Payback's profiles, and arguments erupted over whether those sites should become the next targets. The Operation Payback Twitter account was soon replaced, and one tweet claimed the original account was taken down by mistake.
Users also discussed the validity of online rumors claiming thousands of Mastercard numbers had been released on Twitter and other public sites.
In a statement, Mastercard representatives said that, although the company's main site had been shut down for some time, no personal or security information had been compromised.
One hacker in the chat room wondered if any FBI "spooks" were snooping in on the IRC, and another proclaimed that it was a sure thing. Soon after a new chat room was established to discuss future plans and tactics, the IRC was shut down and a Tweet went out indicating the conversation had been moved to a safer location.
A spokesperson for the FBI told Truthout that is was unclear if the FBI was investigating Operation Payback, and the FBI normally does not confirm the existence of current investigations.
The Anonymous Operation Payback campaign has succeeding several times since September in temporarily shutting down a handful of web sites of companies, lobbying firms and organizations promoting tougher internet copyright rules.
Anonymous computer wiz kids and their anti-authoritarian supporters release YouTube videos as communiqués on the liberation of all online information - documents, files, movies, music - basically anything of interest to pirates and the public.
In various online manifestos, Anonymous argues that access to any and all information online is a basic human right and should not be controlled by the government and big corporations.
Anonymous propaganda often depicts a headless man in a suit or activists wearing the mask worn by the anti-government hero in the movie "V for Vendetta," and the group has declared war against "corrupt governments of the world" and anyone who tries to censor and copyright online information.
Operation Payback's confrontation tactics recently drew criticism from more moderate reformists in the Internet piracy movement. The Pirate Party, a political party recognized in the UK, Sweden and most recently in a few states in the US, wrote an open letter to Anonymous last month requesting they halt Operation Payback and consider more legitimate and legal routes to political change.
In a statement to Truthout, a spokesperson for the UK Pirate Party reiterated that Anonymous is not affiliated with WikiLeaks and their actions can be seen as an "an unusually violent expression of the outrage that many online have expressed over the actions of Amazon, EveryDNS, Mastercard, Visa, and PayPal."
Like Anonymous, the Pirate Party opposes proposed legislation and charters in the US and Europe that would bolster anti-piracy and copyright infringement laws.
Anonymous made headlines in 2008 during a campaign against the Church of Scientology. They have also publicly scuffled with Gene Simmons, former member of the band Kiss, over illegal music downloads.
Mike Ludwig is a Truthout Fellow.