The Government Clampdown on Anonymous for ‘Operation Avenge Assange’
Widely reported yesterday was the arrest of sixteen individuals alleged to be members of the hacktivist group Anonymous, known engaging in cyber operations for political and social reasons. The FBI raided homes seizing computers and computer-related accessories. The Justice Department claimed fourteen of the individuals had been part of the distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on PayPal back in December 2010, when PayPal suspended WikiLeaks’ accounts making it impossible for the organization to receive donations via PayPal.
The unsealed indictment accuses each of the various individuals arrested of conspiracy to commit intentional damage to a protected computer and aiding and abetting intentional damage to a protected computer.
The arrests were made possible because a San Jose federal grand jury that had been empanelled for months handed down indictments. The Department of Justice now seeks a possible fine of up to $250,000 and imprisonment for up to ten years for each “Anon” alleged to have been involved in the DDoS attacks.
The indictment claims defendants violated section 1030 of the US code by committing “fraud and related activity in connection with computers.”
The accusation for each person indicted reads the same:
On or about between December 6, 2010 and December 10, 2010, in the Northern District of California and elsewhere, the defendant [an alleged Anon] knowingly caused the transmission of a program, information, code and command that is LOIC, and, as a result of such conduct, intentionally caused damage without authorization to protected computers at PayPal, and caused loss to 1 or more persons during a 1-year period from the defendant’s course of conduct affecting protected computers aggregating at least $5,000 in value.
The indictment accuses those involved in the DDoS attack of intending to defraud, but it does not appear that anyone in Anonymous took anything from PayPal when committing a DDoS attack except for maybe the service’s reputation of standing for free speech and freedom of expression.
The two other individuals arrested, who were not involved in the attacks on PayPal, are Lance Moore, a low-level AT&T contractor in New Mexico, who, on June 25, allegedly passed on confidential AT&T documents to the hacking group LulzSec. Moore allegedly uploaded the documents to Fileape.com after downloading them off of AT&T’s servers on April 10. The files contained details on AT&T’ plans for its 4G data network and Long Term Evolution mobile broadband network.
Scott Matthew Arciszewski was arrested for allegedly accessing without authorization the Tampa Bay InfraGuard website and uploading three files. A complaint filed by the Middle District of Florida claims he tweeted about accessing the files and directed users to a website with links on “how to exploit the Tampa InfraGard website.” [The Justice Dept defines InfraGard as a “public-private partnership for critical infrastructure protection sponsored by the FBI with chapters in all 50 states. Another possible definition is a program that turns private sector corporations into surrogate eyes and ears for the FBI.”]
The indictment says the DDoS attack was part of “Operation Avenge Assange.” According to a flyer for the operation that was posted online, members of Anonymous declared PayPal “the enemy” and planned DDoS attacks and boycotts, in addition to other things to support WikiLeaks, because it saw Julian Assange as “the prime focus of a global manhunt, in both the physical and virtual realms.” They found governments across the world were “baying for his blood.” Politicians were up in arms about the release of the US State Department embassy cables and Australia even “abandoned him to the wolves.”
Online, WikiLeaks had been the “focus of mass DDoS attacks, legislation and downright pandering to the corrupt incumbents which would silence this man.” Therefore, Anonymous found it to be their duty to “fight the first infowar ever fought, to fight an “oppressive future” they thought loomed ahead.
Anonymous members set out to spread the leaked cables by saving them on hard drives, distributing them on CDs and seeding them on torrents. They pledged to “upvote” Assange as Times 2010 “Person of the Year.” They committed to getting vocal on social media and to printing out distributing the cables to areas where they lived, which raises the question—
If a user engaged in “upvoting” Assange or being vocal on social media, would that be enough to indict him and charge him with participating in the DDoS attack? And, in this climate, if a user was found to have downloaded the previously classified information to hard drives for distribution, is that user under threat of being charged with a crime because the information is still, as the State Department absurdly claims, classified? Are Anons open to prosecution even if they didn’t actually engage in the DDoS attack itself?
As Marcy Wheeler points out, the Justice Department has not indicted anyone for the massive DDoS attack against WikiLeaks that took place eight days earlier, just prior to the release of the previously classified diplomatic cables. The WikiLeaks website had been proposed as a “first pubic target for a US government cyberattack.” In fact, in 2008, the Defense Department had the US Army Counterintelligence Center, Cyber Counterintelligence Assessments Branch and the Defense Department Intelligence Analysis Program prepare an assessment on the threat posed by WikiLeaks.
What the assessment concluded was that WikiLeaks.org (not simply WikiLeaks but the website itself) represented a “potential force protection, counterintelligence, OPSEC and INFOSEC threat to the US Army.” The found the “unauthorized release of DoD sensitive and classified documents could provide foreign terrorist groups, insurgents and foreign adversaries with “potentially actionable information for targeting US forces. They also found the website could be used to “post fabricated information, misinformation, disinformation or propaganda” that “could be used in perception management and influence operations to convey a positive or negative message.”
In May, as the Pentagon was set to unveil its cybersecurity strategy, officials with the Pentagon indicated that cyber attacks could be considered acts of war. The Pentagon suggested there might be ”equivalence” between electronic attacks and physical ones and that “use-of-force” considerations could be made that might “merit retaliation.” One unnamed official even said, “If you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks.”
This context is missing from all the US news media reports: that the DoJ is forcefully going after low-level hackers in Anonymous who have dreams of freedom, liberty and truth winning out in society but are granting impunity to anyone who might have been involved in attacking WikiLeaks. And, if the Pentagon or some agency in government was involved, they aren’t seeking to find out who was involved and how those involved justified launching an attack.
As far as we know–because of choices about secrecy the government has made–a crime was committed against a media outlet on November 28, 2010. That crime remains unsolved. Indeed, DOJ has never made a peep about solving that crime. Meanwhile, today, 14 people were indicted for allegedly committing the very same crime the government–inexplicably, at least according to its public statements–has not pursued.
According to the public story, at least, the rule of law died with this indictment today. The government has put itself–the hackers it likes, if not employs–above the law, while indicting 14 people for the very same crime committed just weeks before those 14 people allegedly committed their crime.
Additionally, there is another dimension, the use of a grand jury to go after members of Anonymous, that must not be overlooked. The use of the grand jury virtually guarantees some of the individuals arrested yesterday had little or nothing to do with the PayPal DDoS attack.
The American grand jury process goes all the way back to the days of President Richard Nixon, when his administration was attacking social movements in the 1970s. Grand juries are often seen as “fishing expeditions.”
The grand jury investigation, based in San Jose, began in February as it began to review “evidence” (computers, mobile phones, etc) seized from suspected leaders in multistate raids that took place on January 27. The grand jury was specifically hunting for people alleged to have been involved in attacks on MasterCard, Visa, PayPal and the UK-based Moneybookers.com (which means the public can probably expect more indictments because yesterday’s indictments only involved those suspected of involvement in DDoS attacks on PayPal).
The Center for Constitutional Rights’ pamphlet, “If an Agent Knocks,” details how grand juries operate:
…All cases are brought to a grand jury by a prosecutor. The prosecutor picks the witnesses and asks the questions. Witnesses are not allowed to have a lawyer present. There is no judge present. The prosecutor drafts the charges and reads them to the grand jury. There is no requirement that the grand jury members be instructed on the law at issue. And, unlike in other juries, grand jury members are not screened for bias.
Since the prosecutor solely orchestrates the proceedings, it is no surprise that grand juries almost always serve as a rubber stamp for prosecution. A former chief judge of New York once famously noted that “any prosecutor that wanted to could indict a ham sandwich.” In the rare event that a grand jury does not indict, the prosecutor can simply empanel a different grand jury and seek and indictment before a new grand jury.
In political cases, grand juries have been used to execute witch hunts against activists. Prosecutors will bring in an activist witnesses and attempt to get them to snitch on other activists with threats of jail time if they refuse to cooperate with the grand jury…
Anonymous is a global political movement. With regards to members in the US, clearly, people engage in activities that are illegal if you read the fine print of the US code on computer fraud and if you look at laws regulating computer crime. But these violations are part of the group’s engagement in resistance.
The militancy of Anonymous online is similar to the historic militancy of the animal rights movement. As this movement grows, the type of state repression that has characterized the clampdown on animal rights and environmental activists can probably be expected.
Anonymous does not damage critical infrastructure or display intent to damage critical infrastructure. Its acts are disruptive. While it clearly is overstepping boundaries through the release of sets of emails from companies targeted, the release of email address lists is not why Anonymous has power. What makes the group powerful are the hacks themselves. For example, hitting contractors like Booz Allen Hamilton, known to engage in activities with the US government that provide support for warrantless wiretapping of US citizens, shows the contractor is vulnerable.
The targeting of vulnerabilities and the engagement in activities that those in businesses targeted would likely say demonstrate an intent to put them out of business is why the government employs the force of the law and vigorously pursues these ideological anti-security hacktivists.
Anonymous is the closest thing the US and possibly the world has to an anti-security movement that can make headlines and draw attention to the ways that companies are becoming increasingly powerful and more capable of intruding into people’s privacy and violating their civil liberties.
It may not seem like a traditional resistance group. But, if you read testimony from members, their words are idealistic. Each “Anon” believes they are part of something bigger than themselves that is bettering the world.
For example, here’s BenBFranklin’s story:
I was following wikileaks and knowing already since some time that there are a lot of things going totally wrong with our governments. It was about the shutdown of the money flow for wikileaks where Anonymous got my attention and my respect for what they did, so that I decided to educate myself about them.
The first time I connected to the IRC it was beginning of what happened in Tunisia. We were there just because of Wikileaks and the suppression of the press to report about it. We saw over the internet how the situation escalated and that meanwhile our media was silent. It was the time when the police started to beat and shot the people and we thought about what we could do more so far away.
Beside Ddosing the government websites as a signal for the citizens, we spreaded information and videos about whats happening over social networks, secured the connections of people on site and created some guides.
I started a pad with four lines in it and the basic idea to build up a riot guide to support the people in their struggle. I spreaded the pad in the channels of the Anonops-IRC and a lot of ppl worked it out and translated it also directly into arabic. The result of the pad just came around again a few days ago and made me fucking happy.
Due to the time of Tunisia and Egypt I learned a lot about whats real and what the media tells us. I wanted the truth and I got it. I saw the good soul of Anon, which 404ed in our governments. I see what we are capable of and I don´t doubt a second in what I am doing here.
Gentleman, it is a fucking honor to be with you
What Anonymous is doing is providing the space and cover for an offline movement to actually challenge the surveillance state that citizens have learned to live under without being appalled or upset with it much at all.
There really is no other movement in America against the ever-expanding security industrial-complex and the always-developing surveillance state. So, what Americans have is Anonymous. And, the mythology the group crafts through its public presence on Twitter, the targets it goes after and the theatrics of their actions unsurprisingly have turned a number of citizens into sympathetic supporters.