Operation Payback: All-Out Cyberwar, Prankster Kids, or Both?

Pro-WikiLeaks activists bring down websites from PayPal to Palin

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As WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange sits in a U.K. prison awaiting a hearing on possible extradition to Sweden on rape charges, an informal network of hackers sympathetic to WikiLeaks have struck out against groups they say have wronged WikiLeaks or Assange. By launching denial-of-service attacks, they have temporarily disabled the websites of Visa, PostFinance, MasterCard, and Sarah Palin's PAC. The efforts appear to be coordinated by the online group "Anonymous" and organized as what they call "Operation Payback." Does this constitute "cyber war"? Is it an imminent threat to freedom and civilization as we know it? Just a bunch of pranksters? Or maybe something in between?

  • This Is Web's 9/11. Now We're at War  Commentary's Abe Greenwald compares without irony. "Once again, the U.S. is waking up to the fact that it’s under attack and not yet up to fighting back. This enemy, like the last one, is nontraditional in nature, and the battle is asymmetrical." But the U.S. leadership doesn't seem to share his assessment. "The fecklessness being displayed by American officials," he writes, "the insistent downplaying of the disaster, and the pervasive sense of confusion all point to the likelihood that we are in for yet another long, controversial, and little-understood war."
  • This Is More Like Noisy Picketing Than 'War'  The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal's rational analysis dials it down a bit:
It's important to remember that these denial-of-service swarms are not attacks or 'hacks' in the sense that they break or break into the computers running a website. Rather, they clog up the pipes leading to the website so that others can't access it. In that sense, they are non-destructive attack. Perhaps the best off-line analog is picketing, although obviously it's hard to do a one-to-one mapping of the digital onto the real.
  • 'Kids Playing Politics'  The Christian Science Monitor's Stephen Kurczy reports that some of the hackers might think of themselves as brave vigilantes, but they're mostly just mischief-makers. "While the Anonymous hackers have called this a 'cyberwar' over Internet freedom and support for WikiLeaks, security specialist Bruce Schneier says this is not a 'war' in any sense of the word. 'It's kids playing politics.' Indeed, while Mr. Housh is in his mid-30s, many of the Anonymous participants are said to be teenagers."
  • Inside the 'Anonymous' Non-Organization  The Economist's Babbage gets inside the community of anonymous conversations on web-based chat applications. "Anonymous is not WikiLeaks, and the more famous whistle-blower does not seem to be pulling the strings. Nor, in fact, does anyone. At any point, anybody can show up in one of several IRC conversations and make a case for a target. ... Anonymous is a 24-hour Athenian democracy, run by a quorum of whoever happens to be awake. It's hard even to define Anonymous as a 'group', since not all members participate in all projects."
When you take down the website of a PostFinance or MasterCard, as Anonymous has done in the past, it does more than simply show disapproval, it affects business. This is the future of activism, and it is both empowering and scary. A group like Anonymous isn't really trying to impose anarchy as much as it's trying to impose the will of its members (or whichever members are active at a certain time). As it fights for freedom on the internet, it constricts the net itself, by taking down websites and halting e-commerce.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.