The rise of the internet’s cyber armies of night and day

13 Dec 2010

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In his look back on the week, Siliconrepublic editor John Kennedy points out how the WikiLeaks saga has led to the calling out of cyber militia who can strike at will at some of the world’s most powerful websites.

Last week, I don’t know what surprised the western world more, the detention of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in the UK for alleged offences in Sweden when everyone knows it’s just a holding action for eventual extradition to the US, or the speed and rapidity in which cyber strike forces organised themselves and struck at will at leading websites in protest.

The publication of 250,000 sensitive documents, including diplomatic cables, represents a significant first but the subsequent arrest of Assange also awoke people from their slumber or their perceived security or faith in legal systems actually protecting free speech. The world was already a cynical place when WikiLeaks did what it did, perhaps now the blindfolds are off the rest of us. If governments want you, they will get you.

But the internet’s response to the situation presents a new dimension. It began with the creation of hundreds of mirrors, where website owners with available server space offered to do the job that Amazon and others refused to do.

Supporters of Assange were equally surprised when they couldn’t offer donations to WikiLeaks when PayPal, Visa and MasterCard also stopped processing their payments.

Cyber mob rules

Then it happened. Before anyone knew about it, Visa.com and MasterCard.com were knocked offline by orchestrated denial of service (DoS) attacks.

DoS attacks aren’t new to the internet, they’ve been around quite some time. Traditionally, skilled hackers would use a virus attack to create zombie computers – most computer owners aren’t even aware their computer is part of an attack – and overload a targeted website with page requests.

What’s interesting here is hundreds, if not thousands, of activists joined the ‘Operation Payback’ army and willingly volunteered their computers to form part of the attack.

This presents a worrying new dimension to cyber warfare. On the one hand you have the sinister actions of large powers being able to use DoS attacks, as was the case of Russia against Estonia when Russia effectively shut Estonia’s computer systems down by orchestrating a cyber attack.

But on the other you have the rise of cyber militia or mobs, whatever you want to call them, who can organise themselves very quickly and strike fast.

On the face of it, these attacks are being orchestrated by concerned individuals protesting a wrong they believe has been perpetrated.

But in reality a terrifying new age has begun where sites or individuals could be held to ransom or be discredited by any cyber mob with different sets of motivations.

Effectively, cyber warfare was once the domain of mysterious hackers or governments with clandestine armies of spooks. Now, it’s become the new form of protest. Hactivism or terrorism? It’s in the eye of the beholder.

Evidence of the new ways with which cyber mobs can be formed can be seen in the attack on tabloid blog site Gawker at the weekend by a gang calling itself ‘Gnosis’ and all the exclusives and files the site had on celebrities were published in a torrent on Pirate Bay. It was a mini version of what WikiLeaks had done to governments around the world.

Who are Gnosis? Teenagers or script kiddies on a rampage, or a group of motivated activists, or hacktivists, making their point on behalf of outraged celebrities?

The age of hacktivism has begun. Let’s hope it’s not a powder keg waiting to go off.

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com