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 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)

Operation Avenge Assange

It appears that Operation Payback has spawned a new initiative known as Operation Avenge Assange. A recently-created flyer from the group says that WikiLeaks founder “Julian Assange deifies everything we hold dear” and urges people to “spread the current leaked cables” and even to “upvote” Assange on TIME’s 2010 Person of the Year list.

The flyer also indicates that distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks will be planned and, indeed, several have already been carried out against companies such as Paypal, Visa and MasterCard.

A spokesperson for the group told The Guardian the following:

“We’re against corporations and government interfering on the internet. We believe it should be open and free for everyone. Governments shouldn’t try to censor because they don’t agree with it.

“Anonymous is supporting WikiLeaks not because we agree or disagree with the data that is being sent out, but we disagree with any from of censorship on the internet. If we let WikiLeaks fall without a fight then governments will think they can just take down any sites they wish or disagree with.”

Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) Attacks

The methods used by groups like Anonymous to take down its target websites vary in scope, but many fall under the umbrella of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. DDoS attacks are generally automated, highly-repetitive requests by a large number of individual computers for access to certain files or pages on a target website to the point that the servers running the website get overloaded and either slow to a crawl or shut down.

Supporters of Anonymous’ initiatives use software known as the Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC) that’s generally used by network administrators to stress test their networks. However, Anonymous uses a modified version of the software that lets users target a specific website en masse and basically stress test it repeatedly until it stops functioning.

Recent Attacks

Recent attacks against websites under the guise of Operation Avenge Assange have been as follows:

Monday 12/6

PostFinance: Swiss bank accused of freezing WikiLeaks assets

Tuesday 12/7

Swedish Prosecution Authority: Issued warrant for Assange’s arrest in London

EveryDNS: Handled the routing of traffic to WikiLeaks.org website but stopped providing service after being overloaded with traffic and DDoS attacks against WikiLeaks

Wednesday 12/8

Joe Lieberman: Attempted to stop WikiLeaks from releasing recent diplomatic cables

MasterCard: Stopped WikiLeaks payment processing services

Borgstrom and Borstrom: Swedish law firm representing the two women who have accused Assange of inappropriate sexual contact

Visa: Stopped WikiLeaks payment processing services

Sarah Palin: Referred to Assange as “an anti-American operative with blood on his hands.”

Thursday 12/9

Paypal: Stopped WikiLeaks payment processing services and froze WikiLeaks assets (assets have since been released)

Amazon.com: Removed WikiLeaks documents from its servers but is selling a Kindle e-book that summarizes the recently-leaked diplomatic cables (the attack has been postponed, according to CNN)

More on TIME.com:

Most Memorable Hacking Moments

Facebook Won’t Block WikiLeaks Just Yet

WikiLeaks Domain Name Killed (and Why It Won’t Kill WikiLeaks)

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