WEST PALM BEACH, Fl, January 26, 2013 ― The United States Sentencing Commission site is now offline, thanks to a cyber attack by hackers known as “Anonymous.”
Late Saturday, hackers replaced the content of the government web site with a message to the world, lamenting “the erosion of due process, the dilution of constitutional rights, the usurpation of the rightful authority of courts by the ‘discretion’ of prosecutors. We have seen how the law is wielded less and less to uphold justice, and more and more to exercise control, authority and power in the interests of oppression or personal gain.”
The missive goes on to explain, “Two weeks ago today, a line was crossed. Two weeks ago today, Aaron Swartz was killed. Killed because he faced an impossible choice. Killed because he was forced into playing a game he could not win – a twisted and distorted perversion of justice – a game where the only winning move was not to play.”
Aaron Swartz was the Internet prodigy who helped create RSS when he was only 14 years old and went on to help develop social networking site Reddit. Two weeks ago, the 26-year-old Swartz hanged himself. Although he suffered from bouts of depression, friends and family say Swartz killed himself because federal prosecutors were hounding him. Swartz was an open-Internet activist and had downloaded thousands of documents from the pay sites JSTOR and PACER to give all users free access.
According to the Anonymous statement, “After much heavy-hearted discussion, the decision was upheld to engage the United States Department of Justice and its associated executive branches in a game of a similar nature, a game in which the only winning move is not to play.”
The group also included a threat. It said, “Through this websites and various others that will remain unnamed, we have been conducting our own infiltration. We did not restrict ourselves like the FBI to one high-profile compromise. We are far more ambitious, and far more capable. Over the last two weeks we have wound down this operation, removed all traces of leakware from the compromised systems, and taken down the injection apparatus used to detect and exploit vulnerable machines.
“We have enough fissile material for multiple warheads. Today we are launching the first of these. Operation Last Resort has begun…”
The clear indication is that the group will step-up hacking efforts against numerous sites, and that none are safe from the reach of the hackers.
This is the second attack by Anonymous in tribute to Swartz. Two days after his death, they hacked two websites belonging to MIT, replacing content with tributes to Swartz. It also used the sites to call for open access for the Internet.
“Hacking” has graduated from annoying but harmless computer intrusions into “Cyberterrorism,” with countries around the world increasing efforts to protect against unauthorized access to government computer systems.
Former FBI director Robert Mueller said in 201, “The risks are right at our doorsteps and in some cases they are in the house” and Richard Clarke, former White House terrorism czar said, “Every major company in the U.S. and Europe has been penetrated – it’s industrial warfare.” A former head of the Homeland Security division in charge of preventing cyber attacks says he worries terrorists could use a program to shut down utilities, including power grids, or target nuclear missiles.
Cyberterrorism became a reality in 2007, when former Soviet republic Estonia was attacked and brought to a temporary standstill.
The Stuxnet virus brought cyberattacks to a new level. When discovered in 2010, it was more complex and dangerous than any previously known virus. That virus targeted Iran’s nuclear program, causing extensive damage while covering its tracks. The virus represented a new form of cyber attacks because it not only took down computer systems, but caused physical damage to items affiliated with computers. The damage was so substantial that Iran took all its government computers off the Internet.
The Sutxnet code is now readily available for hackers to access and use for nefarious purposes.
The US government is likely to view the most recent Anonymous action as cyberterrorism. From a government point of view, Anonymous is now making direct threats to the US government, demanding open access or retribution.
“Suffice it to say, everyone has secrets, and some things are not meant to be public. At a regular interval commencing today, we will choose one media outlet and supply them with heavily redacted partial contents of the file. Any media outlets wishing to be eligible for this program must include within their reporting a means of secure communications.
“We have not taken this action lightly, nor without consideration of the possible consequences. Should we be forced to reveal the trigger-key to this warhead, we understand that there will be collateral damage. We appreciate that many who work within the justice system believe in those principles that it has lost, corrupted, or abandoned, that they do not bear the full responsibility for the damages caused by their occupation.
“It is our hope that this warhead need never be detonated.”
The target of the Anonymous threats is closely-held Internet information. The group, like Swartz, wants open access for all information.
Their statement says:
“However, in order for there to be a peaceful resolution to this crisis, certain things need to happen. There must be reform of outdated and poorly-envisioned legislation, written to be so broadly applied as to make a felony crime out of violation of terms of service, creating in effect vast swathes of crimes, and allowing for selective punishment. There must be reform of mandatory minimum sentencing. There must be a return to proportionality of punishment with respect to actual harm caused, and consideration of motive and mens reason.
“The inalienable right to a presumption of innocence and the recourse to trial and possibility of exoneration must be returned to its sacred status, and not gambled away by pre-trial bargaining in the face of overwhelming sentences, unaffordable justice and disfavourable odds. Laws must be upheld unselectively, and not used as a weapon of government to make examples of those it deems threatening to its power.”
Unfortunately for Anonymous, the US government takes threats seriously, and the group is likely to face the full force of government wrath if caught. In 2011, the Obama Administration pushed for stronger cybersecurity laws, including a doubling of the maximum sentence for potentially endangering national security to 20 years in prison. Lawmakers want hacking categorized as “organized crime” and say they should face the same penalties as hard core criminals.
Note the case of Alberto Gonzalez, a computer hacker who used his skills to use SQL injection to place “backdoors” in corporate computer systems which ultimately allowed him to steal credit card numbers. From 2005 to 2007, he stole thousands of credit card numbers. Gonzalez is now serving 20 years in a federal prison.
Anonymous is incredibly good at what it does, and many believe their skills will make them invulnerable to capture and detection.
However, one former FBI officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity noted, “It just takes one person to tell us something. That is how we will get them. Either they will make a mistake because of their huge egos, or someone will talk. But watch. We will get them.”
In the meantime, Anonymous appears set to continue their operation. The end of their statement warns, “This time there will be change, or there will be chaos … ”
Their considerable computer skills certainly suggest they have the power to bring that chaos.