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Hacker group draws increased scrutiny from feds

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Anonymous is not so anonymous

anymore.

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The computer hackers, chat room denizens and young people who

comprise the loosely affiliated Internet collective have

increasingly turned to questionable tactics, drawing the attention

of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and other federal

investigators.

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What was once a small group of pranksters has become a potential

national security threat, federal officials say.

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The FBI has carried out more than 75 raids and arrested 16 people

this year in connection with illegal hacking jobs claimed by

Anonymous.

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Since June, the Department of Homeland Security has issued three

“bulletins” warning cyber-security professionals of hacking

successes and future threats by Anonymous and related groups,

including a call to physically occupy Manhattan’s Wall Street on

Sept. 17 in protest of various U.S. government policies.

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San Francisco police arrested more than 40 protesters last month

during a rowdy demonstration organized by Anonymous that disrupted

the evening commute. The group called for the demonstration after

the Bay Area Rapid Transit system shut off it cell service in San

Francisco stations to quell a planned protest over police shooting

on a subway platform.

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“Anonymous’ activities increased throughout 2011 with a number of

high-profile attacks targeting both public and private sector

entities,” one of the bulletins issued last month said.

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Some members of the group have also called for shutting down

Facebook in November over privacy issues, although other Anonymous

followers are disavowing such an attack – underscoring just how

loosely organized the group is and how problematic it is to

police.

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“Anonymous insist they have no centralized operational leadership,

which has been a significant hurdle for government and law

enforcement entities attempting to curb their actions,” an Aug. 1

Homeland Security bulletin noted. “With that being said, we assess

with high confidence that Anonymous and associated groups will

continue to exploit vulnerable publicly available Web servers,

websites, computer networks, and other digital information mediums

for the foreseeable future.”

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Followers posting to Twitter and chatting in Internet Relay

Channels insist there are no defined leaders of Anonymous and that

it’s more of a philosophy than a formal club, though a small group

of members do the most organizing online.

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“Anonymous is not a group, it does not have leaders, people can do

ANYTHING under the flag of their country,” wrote one of the more

vocal members who asked not to be identified.

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“Anything can be a threat to National Security, really,” the member

said in an email interview. “Any hacker group can be.”

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The member said that the group as a whole wasn’t a national

security threat, but conceded some individuals acting as Anonynous

may be considered dangerous.

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DHS’ latest bulletin, issued Sept. 3, warned the group has been

using social media networks to urge followers working in the

financial industry to sabotage their employers’ computer

systems.

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The DHS warning comes on the heels of several Anonymous-led

protests of the Bay Area’s transit agency that led to FBI raids of

35 homes and dozens of arrests, as well as to the indictment of 14

followers in July on felony computer hacking charges in connection

with a coordinated “denial of service attack” against Paypal’s

website last year.

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Security officials said the “DDoS” attacks occur when a website is

overwhelmed by malicious messages carried out by thousands of

followers, usually with easily downloadable software.

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“Anonymous has shown through recently reported incidents that it

has members who have relatively more advanced technical

capabilities who can also marshal large numbers of willing, but

less technical, participants for DDoS activities,” the August DHS

bulletin said.

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Anonymous orchestrated the crashing of Paypal late last year after

the online financial service suspended Wikileaks’ account after the

website published confidential diplomatic cables and other

sensitive U.S. government intelligence. The group also targeted

Visa, Mastercard and others for the same reason and has carried out

several other hacks during the year. Last month, for example, the

group claimed responsibility for hacking a website belonging to the

Bay Area Rapid Transit agency and releasing personal information of

2,000 passengers.

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“Anonymous is incredibly active,” said Josh Shaul, chief technology

officer of Application Security, Inc., a New York-based provider of

database security software. It’s rare to have a hacking group

willing to work outside of the shadows. These guys are quite

brazen.”

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Anonymous emerged in 2003 from an Internet chat channel where

members organized random Web incidents for their own amusement. By

2008, the prankster nature of Anonymous morphed into “hacktivism,”

where members sabotaged websites and leaked confidential

information for political purposes.

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Investigators suspect a splinter Anonymous group known as LulzSec

was responsible for a June 15 denial of service attack on the CIA’s

public website.

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This summer, Anonymous claimed credit for hacking into a Booz Allen

Hamilton website and leaking email addresses of 90,000 U.S.

military personnel and hacking a Monsanto Co. website and releasing

personal data of 2,500 employees.

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Until July, law enforcement officials around the world had arrested

just a handful of suspected hackers thought to be affiliated with

Anonymous. But on July 19, the FBI fanned out across the United

States and raided more than 35 homes, seizing dozens of computers

and arrested 16 on charges that they participated in the Paypal

attack.

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In response, Anonymous said it hacked a website on Sept. 1

belonging to police chiefs in Texas. The group posted personal

information such as emails about internal investigations before the

site was shut down.

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FBI investigators in court filings said that the raids and arrests

were made from a list of 1,000 computer users that Paypal

cyber-security workers identified as the most active attackers. The

fourteen appearing in San Jose federal court have pleaded not

guilty and were released on bail after promising not to access

Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites.

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Most of the defendants were younger than 30. Security experts and

the Department of Homeland Security say most of Anonymous followers

are so-called “script kiddies,” young people who carry out the

attacks and who are “less skilled hackers” than the vocal group

members who call for the protests and attacks.

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The DHS defines script kiddies as: “Unskilled individuals who use

scripts or programs developed by others to attack computer systems

and networks and deface websites.”

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