“Dear UK government,” the ominous letter begins. “It has come to our attention that you deemed it necessary to arrest five of our fellow anons for their participation in the DDoS [Distributed Denial of Service] attacks against PayPal, Mastercard, and others, that have been carried out in our name in retaliation for those organizations’ actions against WikiLeaks … we take this as a serious declaration of war … “
The icy-cool shades of Alan Moore and George Orwell are downright chilling: a dystopian world, centered in the UK (as it often is), at war with rebels over secretive, out-of-control, downright dictatorial governments.
But this isn’t “1984” or the world of “V.” “We are Anonymous,” the letter announces, threatening today’s real-life UK government. “Take this statement as a serious warning from the citizens of the world,” the group demands. “We will not rest until our fellow anon protesters have been released.”
It’s another salvo in an ongoing Wikiwar that has political and patriotic dimensions on all sides.
War of the Words
The arrests stem from cyberattacks launched weeks ago by Anonymous, a loosely knit — some might say not-knit-at-all — collective of individuals whose activities can range anywhere from real-life protests to online pranks to focused attacks on websites.
In this case, individuals associated with Anonymous launched DDoS attacks against companies perceived to be working against the interests of Wikileaks. At the time, WikiLeaks had just kicked off its so-called Cablegate affair, in which it published hundreds of thousands of private cables sent between international diplomats.
“The thousands of people from all over the world who felt the need to participate in attacks on organizations targeting Wikileaks and treating it as a public threat, rather than a common good, should really make you think,” Anonymous urges.
Those organizations, however, might be considered patriots from a certain point of view.
“Those trying to block Wikileaks content are acting from a patriotic standpoint,” computer security expert Darren Hayes, a professor at Pace University’s Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems, told TechNewsWorld.
Likewise, Wikileaks’ allies embrace their roles with equal idealistic fervor.
“As traditional means of protest (peaceful demonstrations, sit-ins) have slowly turned into nothing but an empty, ritualized gesture of discontent … people have been anxiously searching for new ways to pressure politicians and give voice to public demands in a manner that might actually be able to change things for the better,” Anonymous members wrote, adding that they’ve found DDoS a “new way of voicing civil protest.”
A new-media way, that is.
“Keep in mind that new media — from email, websites, blogs, and texting to Twitter — is more often a great ally of democratic governments and a difficult foe of authoritarian regimes,” Brian Carso, who directs the Misericordia University program in government, law and national security, told TechNewsWorld. “Think, for instance, how the 2009 protests in Iran over the fraudulent election of Ahmadinejad made it out of Tehran in real time via Twitter and texting.”
As Anonymous understands it, the UK government “is planning to charge fellow anons with offenses under the 1990 Computer Misuse Act, which prohibits impairing the operation of a computer or the readability of data.”
At least one U.S. firm found evidence of such an attack in the UK, when Amazon.com was denied service in widely reported retaliation for booting Wikileaks off their cloud servers.
On their Global Provider graph for applications hosted on an Amazon server numbered EC2 EU and based in Ireland, “we found that there was, from the London backbone, an anomalous Dec. 29 response time 58 percent higher than any other reading taken during the month of November on that node,” Compuware-CloudSleuth Software Developer John Krcmarik told TechNewsWorld.
Cloud applications were still 100 percent available, Krcmarik added, so the question of whether or not DDoS instigators actually “impaired the operation of a computer or the readability of data” remains unresolved.
The maximum sentence allowable under the Computer Misuse Act is fully resolved, however: 10 years imprisonment and a fine of up to Pounds 5,000 (US$7,930.50)
“To hand out these kinds of harsh sentences (even to minors!) would effectively ruin their life … simply because they participated in a peaceful cyberprotest and stood up for their rights,” Anonymous declares.
UK and U.S.
Regardless of any legal violations, the UK response against Anonymous may resemble contemplated U.S. responses against Wikileaks and its founder, Julian Assange, which experts increasingly frame in the context of anti-espionage enforcement.
“The criminal charge most likely to stick to Assange would have to do with espionage — that he facilitated the transfer of classified documents, and thereby essentially stole them,” Misericordia’s Carso explained. “He is a foreign national who spied on the U.S.A. I believe the U.S.A. is justified in taking strong actions for that reason.”
But is the UK? Anonymous thinks not.
“Pursuing this direction is a sad mistake on your behalf,” their letter explains. “You do not seem to understand the present-day political and technological reality.”
That reality, says Brooklyn Law School IT Professor Jonathan Askin, has become highly democratized.
“The Internet obliterates geo-political boundaries,” Askin told TechNewsWorld. “Digital technology puts the power of mass distribution into the hands of the individual.”
Or, as Anonymous is claiming, into the hands of freedom fighters. “You can easily arrest individuals,” they write, “but you cannot arrest an ideology.”