Operation Payback: Who Are the WikiLeaks ‘Hactivists’?

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A hacking group simply identifying itself as “Anonymous” has taken credit for a recent string of high-profile cyber attacks against the websites of businesses, banks and politicians that have either spoken out against or stopped doing business with whistleblowing site, WikiLeaks.

Since Monday of this week, targets have included Swiss financial institution PostFinance, Joe Lieberman, Sarah Palin, MasterCard, Visa, Paypal and most recently Amazon.com, though an attack planned on the online retailer earlier today has since fallen through.

While the group’s members are, like their namesake, anonymous, this recent bout of attacks isn’t the first of its kind by those involved.

Anonymous

Anonymous has claimed responsibility for cyber attacks against various targets since 2006, including a well-documented series of attacks against the Church of Scientology in 2008.

You’ll recall that early in 2008, a video featuring Tom Cruise that was produced by the Church of Scientology found its way onto YouTube somehow and was removed after the organization accused YouTube of copyright infringement. In retaliation for what it deemed as censorship, Anonymous launched a series of attacks against the Scientology website and organized several in-person protests at Scientology centers.

The group’s name, Anonymous, is believed to be a nod to the 4chan internet forums. Members are permitted to post forum topics under the name “Anonymous,” which may be part of the reason our own Lev Grossman half-jokingly described the site as “a wretched hive of scum and villainy.” (More on TIME.com: The Master Of Memes)

Though the content contained on 4chan can definitely get a bit rough around the edges, the site has spawned some of the more memorable internet memes in recent history—Rickrolling being one of the most popular—and has an uncanny ability to mobilize its users for or against certain causes.

While some members of Anonymous may also be 4chan members, a person believed to be involved with the @Op_Payback Twitter account told Mashable, “Make sure everyone knows that we are not 4CHAN. 4CHAN has nothing to do with this.”

Operation Payback

Anonymous launched what it calls Operation Payback in September of this year, with the goal of disrupting targets that it sees as overly aggressive when attempting to enforce copyright law.

The group has taken down the websites of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in recent months, accompanied by attacks on a pair of KISS front man Gene Simmons’ websites after he advised attendees at a media industry convention to “Be litigious. Sue everybody. Take their homes, their cars. Don’t let anybody cross that line,” in response to piracy.

In the past week, Anonymous has shifted its Operation Payback efforts towards banks that have blocked payments to WikiLeaks or frozen WikiLeaks’ assets, and has gone after several companies that have recently stopped doing business with WikiLeaks. (More on TIME.com: Hackers Target MasterCard for Blocking WikiLeaks Payments)

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