Social media has been sucked into the cyberwar that's raging between now between the pro- and anti-WikiLeaks forces on the Net.
The collective group "Anonymous" - which first arose from the lolcats/rickrolling world of 4chan to take on the Church of Scientology nearly three years ago - has become the self-anointed guardian of WikiLeaks. It is avenging alleged wrongs done to WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange after the site began publishing classified US State Department cables (you may have read a thing or two about that lately - just a guess), using a rolling series of distributed denial of service attacks (DDOS's) against WikiLeaks' "enemies." And its relying heavily on social media tools like Facebook and Twitter to do it.
So far, the collective forces of Anonymous have taken down the PayPal blog (though not PayPal itself), the US Senate Web directory, the site for Julian Assange's Swiss bank, the site for the Swedish prosecutors who are bringing charges against Assange for alleged sexual assault, and the home pages of Visa and MasterCard, who along with PayPal stopped processing donations to WikiLeaks as a result of its actions.
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The Anons are doing it via a free software applet called the Low Orbiting Ion Cannon (LOIC), which be installed on any system and used to overwhelm the servers of any site unlucky to find itself in their crosshairs. Users simply plug a port number and URL into the LOIC screen and press the "Fire!" button; sites are flooded with requests for pages that don't exist, generating a cascade of error responses that overloads the site's capacity.
According to the geeks at the SANS Internet Storm Center, Twitter is an essential part of the Anonymous attack plan. In one version of LOIC, users plug in the name of a Twitter account controlled by Anonymous, which then lets that account holder direct the attack at whatever site happens to the target. In other versions, users themselves direct the attack, using instructions delivered via Twitter.
As I write this, for example, @Op_Payback is spewing out instructions to would-be Net vigilantes like:
The hashtags in that tweet can of course be searched, so that even if you're not following @Op_Payback (or Twitter manages to shut that account down) you can easily find out who to attack. In fact, Twitter has shut down the original @Anon_Operation account, as well as @AnonOperation, but new accounts keep springing up, and other Twits keep retweeting the instructions. It's a game of whack-a-mole that may never end.
Meanwhile, Facebook has suspended at least one of the pages set up by Anonymous for its Operation Paycheck vigilante scheme. It has so far declined to suspend the WikiLeaks page, saying the organization has done nothing to violate its terms of service. So my question becomes, will Anonymous target Facebook next? Or does its support of the WikiLeaks page earn it a pass?
I don't think Anonymous is big enough to bring down Facebook or do permanent harm any of the sites it has targeted. This is largely a public protest - or publicity stunt, if you will. The real harm may come if WikiLeaks makes good on its threat to exercise the "nuclear option" by releasing the encryption keys to all of the documents in its possession - unredacted files that could reveal the identities of spies, informants, sources, private bank accounts, and Lord knows what else.
Imagine an army of Anons spreading that dirt so far and wide it can never be retrieved. That's what frightens me.
ITworld TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan tries very hard to avoid ticking off Anonymous, whoever they are. Catch his brand of juvenile snark at eSarcasm (Geek Humor Gone Wild) or follow him on Twitter: @tynan_on_tech.
This story, "Will Anonymous Target Facebook Next?" was originally published by ITworld.