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December 17, 2010

What is a Hacker?

The online attacks against international payment websites continue to make the news and, if you believe the media hype, look set to escalate into all-out cyber warfare. It has already been dubbed “The First World Information War.”

‘Operation Payback’ began to hit the headlines when the shadowy online anarchic campaigners known as Anonymous called for reprisals against certain large global corporations for their withdrawal of online payment collection services to the controversial WikiLeaks site.
Since my first posting on this subject Amazon has experienced further problems and there are continued reports of downtime on Visa and MasterCard sites across the world.

The whistle-blowing, secret-government-document-publishing website WikiLeaks has attained international notoriety for championing openness and transparency. Its founder, Julian Assange, is widely feted as a freedom fighter – anti-censorship, anti-copyright, pro freedom of speech – and is wanted by the US government for alleged espionage and for threatening national security. His status as guerrilla fighter for the truth and potential martyr has been further enhanced by the pronouncements of well known right-wing spokespersons such as Mike Huckabee, who said those who passed the secrets to Assange should be executed, and Sarah Palin, who demanded that Assange be hunted in the same way an al-Qaida operative. News of his arrest, on the unrelated charges of sexual assault, was greeted by the US Secretary of Defense with the words “That sounds like good news to me.”

Sources in the Kremlin have cheekily suggested Assange for a Nobel Peace Prize. Whatever next? Perhaps the Vatican could have him canonized: The Blessed St Julian of Assange has a certain ring to it, don’t you think? It is less well known that Operation Payback began way before the WikiLeaks story went viral and exploded across the internet creating sensational headlines all over the world. In fact it originated as a less-than-idealistic campaign designed to hit back at the US recording industry in reprisal for its prosecutions of illegal music file downloaders.

Now, spear-headed by the ‘saintly’ Assange and spurred on by the so-called ‘Hacktivist’ group Anonymous, Operation Payback continues to gather momentum and cause disruption and annoyance to everyday commercial operations totally unconnected to the controversy. Anonymous may have been dubbed ‘Hacktivists’ by the press, which is currently enjoying a media bonanza of headline-making stories, but they are hardly worthy of the epithet of ‘Hacker’, are they?

As far as I can see, all they are doing is following the crowd like a herd of sheep, using someone else’s ‘botnet’ software to maliciously target the innocent and the irrelevant rather than using their brains to hack into a computer system that might actually constitute an intellectual challenge or a threat to them. Take Gary McKinnon, for example, computer geek, UFO enthusiast and Asperger’s sufferer, currently awaiting extradition to the US. He managed to break into US military and NASA systems whilst apparently looking for evidence of UFO sightings and cover-ups. Now there was a true Hacker.

I don’t approve of what he did, but at least he had the brains to get into government computer systems under his own steam. He maintains that the ‘secret’ files he hacked into were on open, unsecured machines with no passwords and no firewalls, and claims to have left countless notes pointing out their many security failings. Not exactly the acts of a dangerous terrorist, but idealistically motivated, albeit in a misguided way.

In contrast to this, the malicious attacks by the Anonymous activists are not true hacks at all. They are more accurately known as Distributed Denial-of-Service, or DDoS attacks, meaning multiple systems attacking a single target, thereby causing denial of service for users of the targeted system. The sheer volume of incoming messages to the target system forces it to shut down, denying service to the system to legitimate users.

Charlotte Mooney is an IT professional with many years experience, now working for International IT Software Consultancy Proswift, a leading provider of international credit system solutions to banks and finance houses. Click here for lots more topical stories from the world of credit card processing.