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Updated: December 9, 2010 21:39 IST

WikiLeaks' friends launch cyberwar

    John F. Burns
    Ravi Somaiya
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Denial-of-service attacks on MasterCard, Visa sites

In a campaign that had some declaring the start of a “cyberwar”, hundreds of Internet activists mounted retaliatory attacks on Wednesday on the websites of multinational companies and other organisations they deemed hostile to the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy organisation and its jailed founder, Julian Assange.

Within 12 hours of a British judge's decision on Tuesday to deny Mr. Assange bail in a Swedish extradition case, attacks on the websites of WikiLeaks' “enemies”, as defined by the organisation's impassioned supporters, caused several corporate websites to become inaccessible or slow down markedly.

Targets of the attacks, in which activists overwhelmed the sites with traffic, included the website of MasterCard, which had stopped processing donations for WikiLeaks; Amazon.com, which revoked the use of its computer servers; and PayPal, which stopped accepting donations for Mr. Assange's group.

Visa.com was also affected by the attacks, as were the websites of the Swedish prosecutor's office and the lawyer representing the two women whose allegations of sexual misconduct are the basis of Sweden's extradition bid.

The Internet assaults underlined the growing reach of self-described “cyber anarchists”, anti-government and anti-corporate activists who have made an icon of Mr. Assange, a 39-year-old Australian, whom they consider one of their own.

The speed and range of the attacks also appeared to show the resilience of the backing among computer activists for Mr. Assange, who has appeared increasingly isolated in recent months amid the furore stoked by WikiLeaks' website posting of hundreds of thousands of secret Pentagon documents on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In recent months, some of Mr. Assange's closest associates in WikiLeaks abandoned him, calling him autocratic and capricious and accusing him of reneging on WikiLeaks' original pledge of impartiality to launch a concerted attack on the United States. He has been simultaneously fighting a remote battle with the Swedish prosecutors, who have sought his extradition for questioning on accusations of “rape, sexual molestation and forceful coercion” made by the Swedish women. Mr. Assange has denied any wrongdoing in the cases.

U.S. officials have repeatedly said that they are reviewing possible criminal charges against Mr. Assange, a step that could lead to a bid to extradite him to the United States and confront him with having to fight for his freedom on two fronts. The cyberattacks in Mr. Assange's defence appear to have been coordinated by Anonymous, a loosely affiliated group of activist computer hackers who have singled out other groups before, including the Church of Scientology. Last weekend, members of Anonymous vowed in two online manifestoes to take revenge on any organisation that lined up against WikiLeaks.

Anonymous claimed responsibility for the MasterCard attack in Web messages and, according to one activist associated with the group, conducted multiple and repeated waves of attacks on other companies during the day.

The activist, Gregg Housh, who disavows any personal role in illegal online activity, said in a telephone interview that 1,500 supporters had been in online forums and chat rooms organising the mass and repeated “denial of service” attacks on some of the companies.

His account was confirmed by Jose Nazario, a senior security researcher at Arbor Networks, a Chelmsford, Mass., firm that tracks malicious activity on computer networks.

Almost all the corporate websites that were attacked appeared to be operating normally later on Wednesday, suggesting that any economic impact was limited. But the sense of an Internet war was reinforced when Netcraft, a British Internet monitoring firm, reported that the website being used by the hackers to distribute denial-of-service software had been suspended by a Dutch hosting firm, Leaseweb.

In a denial-of-service attack, many computers are harnessed together to transmit streams of data packets at a target computer, overwhelming its ability to process the incoming data.

A sense of the belligerent mood among activists associated with the Anonymous group was given when one contributor to a forum the group uses, WhyWeProtest.net, wrote of the attacks: “The war is on. And everyone ought to spend some time thinking about it, discussing it with others, preparing yourselves so you know how to act if something compels you to make a decision. Be very careful not to err on the side of inaction.”

Mr. Housh acknowledged that there had been online talk among the hackers of a possible Internet campaign against the two Swedish women who are Mr. Assange's accusers in the Swedish extradition case, but he said that “a lot of people don't want to be involved”. — New York Times News Service

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