by J. Schumacher
Security professionals have been following the collective of Internet users calling themselves Anonymous for a few years now as they cause cyber mayhem to understand their tactics. There were two well written publications in recent weeks that caught my eye, The New York Times “In Attack on Vatican Web Site, a Glimpse of Hackers’ Tactics” and Imperva’s “Hacker Intelligence Summary Report, the Anatomy of an Anonymous Attack”. These articles shed light on how Anonymous takes a call to arms, recruits members, and searches for action. After reading these articles I kept thinking about current state of the Internet and wondering about the future of Anonymous’ with the cyber pandemonium it creates.
Taking the Imperva report as factual, the collective group of Anonymous has an approximate 10:1 ratio of laypeople to skilled hackers, which I believe limits the sophistication of attacks. I say “collective”, as targets for attacks are not often given from above, but must be approved or agreed upon by the masses before being launched. One very interesting note in Imperva’s report was that the attacks Imperva monitored in 2011 were not utilizing bots, malware or phishing techniques for exploit, but end users actively running tools or visiting special web sites to aid in the attack. There was a high level of public recruitment through social media of Twitter and Facebook, which can also act to inform the victim before the attack hits properly.
The New York Times article mentions that the attack on the Vatican took 18 days to gain enough recruitment and automated scanning tools were used for reconnaissance on the Vatican virtual front during this time. In this attack Anonymous was seeking to interrupt the International Youth Day by a certain date, but when that failed Anonymous changed tactics to widespread distribution of software for Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) so they could to hit the Vatican with a thousand person attack. There were mixed statements from Anonymous and Imperva (who was a contractor for Internet security monitoring) regarding whether any sites across the globe were truly taken offline for any amount of time.
I think that Rob Rachwald, Imperva’s director of security, was quoted best by The New York Times article as saying “who is Anonymous? Anyone can use the Anonymous umbrella to hack anyone at anytime”. However, I believe Anonymous has currently reached their collective peak and will never be the same as in its early 4chan or even the 2008 days. However, by no means has the world heard the last of Anonymous, as people will be claiming affiliation to the collective “group” for a very long to come, and I believe it will also continue to evolve over time. How this change takes place is going to be exciting to see as Anonymous claims an “ideas without leaders” mentality and relies on general public for consensus of missions.
Recently, an interesting report from Symantec also came out about how Anonymous affiliates were tricked into installing the Zeus Trojan by a Pastebin tutorial covering how to install and use one of the attack tools, the Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC), to support in DDoS attacks. Established Twitter handles for Anonymous contributors (YourAnonNews, AnonymousIRC, AnonOps) have tweeted that this was not done by Anonymous. But, with no leadership accountable (due to the collective nature of Anonymous), there is nothing to say whether this is a true, whether another entity is sabotaging Anonymous public fanfare, or if it was simply someone taking advantage of free publicity to trick users into installing malware. Since what many call the start of Anonymous in 2008 (Scientology attacks), there have not been any other large scale compromises of the those supporting attacks through infected tools, but this new activity could hurt the future of Anonymous recruitment and public support.
Depending on whether this recent instance of infected tools was a fluke, I see the future of Anonymous involving with skilled hackers increasing through a Wild West collaborative of honing their talents, while keeping the true base of Anonymous as largely unskilled hackers. The skilled will, at times, directly and indirectly work for entities (such as large scale crime syndicates as well as private entities) to whom they are lured by big pay for work that will never be reported in any news paper. The skilled hackers will still participate in Anonymous causes, and they will also enable other Anonymous members (through writing attack tools, scripts or apps), while also keeping knowledge of their well paid exploits limited to a smaller private offshoot group. These offshoots will put dedication into advanced exploits that require some financial backing to set up (such as servers for social engineering, injection data repository, proxies and bots) but these exploits will most likely never be communicated to the larger Anonymous collective or used for social causes of the masses but rather private gains.
At the same time though, the unskilled hackers, making up the majority of the group, are essential to Anonymous at large for bringing attention and support to causes, identifying weaknesses in networks, performing DDoS attacks and being a overall distraction and crowd to hide in. It seems bots will be unnecessary and replaced by humans where it is simpler. A large army that is not connected (outside of the odd one-off message to a public forums or social media) provides for a large pool that the authorities must sift through in finding the dedicated Anon. The collective group of Anonymous has showed support for many social causes, like the occupy movement and free speech outcries from proposed Internet legislation. At the same time Anonymous seems to have very publicly promoted every hack and breach that has been reported since 2010 whether the data exposed was government, private industry or public citizens.
I like to think of myself as a practical, but at times wishful, person. As I see it, the core ideology of the Anonymous’ movement is not going away, as their cause is not so much new as is the platform for their disobedience. There are some basic controls that organizations can implement to protect themselves from a virtual protest, whether the risk is from DDoS attacks or exploits of un-patched public devices. In the near term, I do not see a high probability of Anonymous becoming a super group of hackers that perform sophisticated attacks in the likes of Stuxnet. Nor do I see the possibility of a large scale take down of critical infrastructure. There will always be a risk and sometimes possible threats to critical infrastructure through technology but this risk can be largely mitigated through proper assessment and mitigating controls.
Side note –
If the recent instance of infected tools will continue on other causes then I believe we have seen the end of wide support for Anonymous. Distrust has always been a concern to involved members with very recent arrests across the globe for LulzSec. Anonymous will need to do internal damage control to prevent the collapse of the collective group and a public distrust in support for causes brought up by the Anons. Even if hacking group Anonymous goes in a different direct the damage has been done and Internet society can never reverse the damage physiologically from the last 5 years.
As writing this post there was news coming out that a prominent member of Anonymous, Sabu, along with 5 others have been arrested by the FBI. We will have more details once the dust settles a bit and all news sources can be processed, stay tuned.