Jeremy Kirk, IDG-News-Service:Sydney-Bureau
When a few members of the politically motivated hacking group Anonymous floated
a plan recently to cripple the Internet's core address system, the idea was
roundly dismissed by other members of the group.
Trying to disable the Internet by attacking servers critical to the Domain
Name System -- the Internet's address look-up system -- would be counter to the
group's actions, which depend on a constant online presence, they said.
In any case, experts have said an attack against the root servers that
deliver address information for top-level domains would be extremely difficult because of the redundancy built into the
"Anonymous understands the strength of these servers and would never have any
intention of touching them," said Raven, the screen name for a 23-year-old,
U.S.-based member of Anonymous, who is active on its IRC channels. "Same goes
for the power grid," he said in an interview via email.
But as Anonymous continues to flex its hacking muscle, it is making officials
increasingly nervous. Its actions lately have included the theft of millions of
emails from analyst firm Stratfor Global Intelligence, to the recording last
month of a conference call between U.S. and British law enforcement
The director of the U.S. National Security Agency, Gen. Keith Alexander, has
warned the White House that Anonymous might have the capability to cause a
limited power outage within a year or two, according to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal.
Assessing the motives of Anonymous is difficult since it comprises several
groups of hackers and activists and has no central leadership, said Joshua
Corman, director of security intelligence for Akamai Technologies, who studies
Cybercriminals motivated by profit are unlikely to try to take down the
Internet because it would be contrary to their financial interests, Corman said.
But within Anonymous are some "chaotic actors" who can have a "real nasty
streak," he said.
"When you don't have centralized leadership, it doesn't matter what most will
do, it matters what one of them will do," Corman said.
Only a small core of Anonymous is thought to have the technical know-how to
carry out such advanced hacking operations. Like most grassroots organizations,
its strength comes from the masses who join its cause, whether through
electronic attacks or in physical protests wearing the Guy Fawkes masks that
have become a hallmark of the group.
For example, Anonymous encouraged its supporters to download a Web-based tool
in November 2010 to conduct distributed denial-of-service attacks against
financial companies that turned off payment processing for the whistle-blowing
But security analysts said the crude tool left activists' IP addresses
exposed, which could provide a way for authorities to try to track them
"There's really only a few hackers out in the movement that really deserve
the term 'hackers,'" said Barrett Brown, a writer and activist who works closely
with Anonymous and the affiliated AntiSec group and is the founder of Project
While Anonymous could develop the skills to damage power plants within a year
or so, attacks on large-scale infrastructure "don't really serve our purposes,"
Anonymous' decentralized structure also has a big disadvantage: Other groups
of hackers, for example from China or Russia, could strike critical targets and
then blame Anonymous in an attempt to confuse investigators, a so-called "false
"I see the benefit for others who would want to sow fear and use the
Anonymous name as the shield to do whatever they like, and it will be blamed on
Anonymous," said Scot A. Terban, an independent information security and
open-source intelligence analyst.
If something happened to a water or power plant and was attributed to
Anonymous, the "group will be branded a terrorist organization quicker than you
can blink an eye," Terban said.
Brown said U.S. officials are already edging close to conflating Anonymous
with terrorist groups such as al-Qaida, which could push Anonymous in the
direction of wanting to become more accountable in order to credibly deflect
But the rapidly changing make-up of the group makes it hard even for people
within Anonymous to keep current, Brown said. It also makes it harder to
coordinate a unified voice for the group.
"It's really a lot of work to keep up with what's going on, even if you're in
Anonymous. I wouldn't want to be in law enforcement right now. It's a difficult
job," he said.