10th Aug 2022

Targets multiply in online war on anti-WikiLeaks companies

  • Anonymous has been recruiting volunteers to turn their computers into spam-sending bots (Photo: Bombardier)

Twitter and Facebook could be next in line as targets for the pro-WikiLeaks hackers who temporarily shut down MasterCard and Visa on Wednesday (8 December) on top of a string of earlier attacks.

Message boards linked to the group Anonymous and its 'Operation Payback' late on Wednesday evening posted threats against Twitter after it stopped the hackers from using its pages to recruit supporters. "You're next for censoring #Wikileaks discussion," one post said. Anonymous had published links on Twitter enabling people to download a botnet called LOIC which lets the group use the downloaders' computers to send masses of data to victim companies in a so-called DDoS (distributed denial of service) attack.

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MasterCard, which had earlier in the week cut off payments to WikiLeaks, saw its main corporate website go down at around noon Central European Time and stay off most of the day. The same thing happened to Visa, which had also cut off WikiLeaks, at around midnight. The attacks reportedly disrupted online shopping. An associated online publication of fake personal details purporting to belong to MasterCard users also aimed to damage customers' trust.

Facebook could be in the firing line alongside Twitter for suspending some of Operation Payback's web pages on Wednesday.

The company's spokesman, Andrew Noyes, said in a statement that the decision was based on internal terms of use and not politics. "We take our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities very seriously and react quickly to reports of inappropriate content and behavior. Specifically, we're sensitive to content that includes pornography, bullying, hate speech, and threats of violence," he explained.

Right-wing US politician Sarah Palin on Wednesday also claimed to have been hit, indicating that Anonymous is opening a new front against anti-WikiLeaks commentators.

Anonymous earlier this week already attacked anti-WikiLeaks companies PayPal and PostBank, the Swedish prosecutor's office which issued an arrest warrant against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and the lawyer representing his alleged sexual assault victims.

The Anonymous group was born on the bulletin-board website set up in 2003 by American teenager Christopher Poole. Mr Poole in an interview with The Guardian on Wednesday said the site has 12 million visitors a month who post messages under the tag Anonymous, some of whom coalesce into ad-hoc hacker armies which later disband.

"People ... came to the site who not only saw Anonymous as a principle, but started to exploit anonymity as a new platform where they could be rebellious and no one knew who they were," he said. "There is a set of codified rules and we do enforce them: Don't break the law or post anything illegal. Past that, the users are left to their own devices."

Cyber attacks against WikiLeaks itself have led WikiLeaks fans to set up hundreds of mirror sites to host the content, with over 1,000 mirror sites and counting on Wednesday night. WikiLeaks has continued to publish bits of its cache of classified US cables despite the arrest on Wednesday by British police of Mr Assange. A further 200-or-so cables appeared on Wednesday, bringing the number so far to 1,193 out of over 250,000.

An Icelandic firm, Datacell, which helps to host WikiLeaks, said it has faced pressure from MasterCard and Visa to cut it loose. The company's founder, Olafur V. Sigurvinsson, told Icelandic radio that the anti-WikiLeaks effort is pointless, however: "It is clear that they will never close WikiLeaks except by taking the whole Internet down."

Vint Cerf, the vice-chairman of Google and one of the creators of the Internet, made similar remarks in The Washington Post: "The Internet is an extremely open system with very low barriers to access and use ... The ease of moving digital information around makes it very difficult to suppress once it is accessible."

Speculation is mounting as to whether Mr Assange will be extradited to the US. One EU official said that the pro-transparency activist's fame is his best protection against any violation of rights: "It's like taking on the mafia. You have to make sure you stay in the public eye if you want to be safe."

Meanwhile, Sweden's foreign minister Carl Bildt has denied having had any contacts with the US on the Assange sexual assault case. "We have an independent judiciary, quite independently acting in accordance to the law and [which] does not have any contacts with Swedish political authorities or with any other authorities," he said while on a trip to Belgrade.


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