STE WILLIAMS

Anonymous Wikileaks supporters mull change in tactics

Dec
10

‘Coldblood’, a member of the group Anonymous, tells Jane Wakefield why he views its attacks on Visa and Mastercard as defence of Wikileaks.

Web attacks carried out in support of Wikileaks are being wound down as activists consider changing tactics.

Attacks against Amazon were called off late on 9 December and re-directed towards net payments firm Paypal.

Analysis suggests the earlier attacks were made more effective by the involvement of hi-tech criminals.

At the same time one wing of the activist group suggested ditching the attacks and doing more to publicise what is in the leaked cables.

Site saving

The attacks have been carried out using a tool, called LOIC, that allows people to bombard a site of their choosing with data or let the target be chosen by those running the Anonymous campaign.

Luis Corrons, technical director of Panda Labs, said during its investigation of Anonymous’ attacks its analysts got talking to some of the activists via Internet Relay Chat (IRC).

One of those activists said he had a botnet of 30,000 machines under his control that he was planning to use on behalf of Wikileaks.

“The guy said he had this botnet which was nothing special and was not specifically designed to do these attacks but could be used to do them,” said Mr Corrons.

A botnet is a network of hijacked home computers that have been compromised by their owners visiting a booby-trapped webpage that installs code to hand over control to a hi-tech criminal.

Mr Corrons said a botnet with 30,000 machines in it was “about average size”. Most of the spam sent around the net is funnelled through machines that are in botnets.

It was becoming clear, he said, that some attacks were aided by the 30,000 machines under the cyber criminals control.

“We know for sure the botnet was used in at least one attack on Paypal,” he said.

Panda itself has come under attack with its blog knocked offline for hours by an attack very similar to those Anonymous has been carrying out. Mr Corrons said that, so far, it did not why it was being attacked or who was attacking it.

Fresh leaks

There are also suggestions that the Anonymous group might be about to drop the web attacks in favour of another tactic.

A message posted on the 4chan image board, out of which Anonymous has grown, suggests dropping LOIC in favour of publicising information in the diplomatic cables that Wikileaks is releasing.

Searching for the less-well publicised cables and spreading the information they contain around the web could be more effective than simply knocking out sites deemed to be enemies of Wikileaks, it said.

The message also suggests using misleading tags on posts and YouTube videos to trick people into reading or viewing the information.

“They don’t fear the LOIC, they fear exposure,” read the message.

It is not yet clear if the call to change tactics has been taken up by the Anonymous group at large.

In related news, Wikileaks looks set to have a rival as former staffers of the whistle-blowing website prepare to launch. Set up by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Open Leaks is expected to launch in mid_December and will host and post information leaked to it.

Is taking part in these attacks illegal?

The short answer is yes, according to Struan Robertson, legal director at law firm Pinsent Masons.

He told the BBC that in the UK, taking part in the attacks would be a breach of the Computer Misuse Act.

He said that anyone found guilty of taking part could face “up to ten years imprisonment”.

“Even downloading the [software] tools to assist in committing these attacks… are themselves guilty of an offence,” he said.

He said this could carry a sentence of up to two years in the UK.

Different countries will have different laws and penalties.

However, security expert Peter Wood said that in practice it would be very difficult to track down the people involved because the attacks used “anonymising software” to hid their tracks online.

The tool launches what is known as a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack which tries to knock a website offline by bombarding it with so much data that it cannot respond.

The LOIC tool has been downloaded more than 46,000 times but, said Anonymous activists in a tweet, this did not translate into enough people using it to knock the retail giant off the web.

Instead, the attack was re-directed towards Paypal and its computer systems which, according to a status page, has intermittently suffered “performance issues” ever since.

Early on 10 December Moneybookers was chosen as the next target and its site was occasionally unreachable from about 1100 GMT.

The chances of success could be boosted by a new version of LOIC written in web programming language Javascript that allows anyone with a browser, including on a mobile phone, to launch attacks.

However, defences against the attacks were being drawn up as security firms scrutinise the code behind LOIC to work out how attacks happen. Some suggest that well-written firewall rules would be able to filter out most of the harmful traffic.

Criminal chain

Information is also starting to emerge about the other resources that supporters of Anonymous have been able to bring to bear. Research by security firm Panda suggests that some of the earlier attacks on payment firms were aided by hi-tech criminals.

Who are Anonymous?

‘Anonymous’ is commonly used to describe a leaderless collective of people who come together online, commonly to stage a protest.

The groups vary in size and make-up depending on the cause. Members often identify themselves in web videos by wearing the Guy Fawkes masks popularised by the book and film V for Vendetta.

Its protests often take the form of disrupting websites and services.

Its use of the term Anonymous comes from a series of websites frequented by members, such as the anarchic image board 4Chan.

These allow users to post without having to register or provide a name. As a result, their comments are tagged “Anonymous”.

In the past, groups have staged high-profile protests against plans by the Australian government to filter the internet and the Church of Scientology.

The latter spilled over into the real world with protests by masked members outside churches. An offshoot of Anonymous called Project Chanology focuses purely on this cause.

Many Anonymous protests tackle issues of free speech and preserving the openness of the net.

Join in the Wikileaks DDoS war from your iPhone or iPad

Dec
10

The online “infowar” precipitated by the media circus surrounding Wikileaks and Julian Assange continues, with DDoS attacks occurring against a bewildering variety of websites assessed as having either aided or failed to aid the leak-publisher – or often merely for commenting on the brouhaha.

Meanwhile, interest has focused on the methods used to mount the DDoS attacks. It appears that in general most of the muscle is coming from botnets of the usual sort: ones made up of zombie machines infected with malware using the same methods as ordinary online criminals and spammers (and just as illegal).

However, some of the battling communities – for instance the loosely organised hacktivist collective Anonymous, aligned in support of Assange and Wikileaks – also use collaborative tools where supporters can voluntarily attach their machines to a botnet in order to assist with a DDoS attack. The preferred tools are usually some version of the Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC) software. Machines running LOIC can then be controlled via IRC or some other channel (again the campaigners are aping criminals by using Twitter of late).

Downloading and installing LOIC (the code is freely available at such places as Sourceforge) is simple enough, but evidently off-putting enough that not many people are doing it. The LOIC hivemind net run by Anonymous has generally had only a few hundred machines in it, far too few to mount a serious DDoS, and most of the grunt has been delivered by larger malware-based botnets controlled by individual Anonymous members (just one reportedly containing more than 30 times as many machines as the anonops.net hivemind).

But in the last day or two, a new wrinkle has begun to gain prominence. It is now possible to visit a webpage which will convert your browser into a pocket LOIC instance, delivering DDoS packets from whatever device you are using to browse – not necessarily even a computer.

As Panda Labs analyst Sean-Paul Correll notes:

Only a browser is needed, so you can even launch the attack from your fone, I just tested it with my iPhone … Of course I tested that it was real and worked, but I didn’t send any attack out.

Such a webpage will typically give you the option of adjusting how many requests per second to send to the target website (handy in the case of a phone or perhaps a fondle-slablet device with a limited data package and/or bandwidth) and allow you to attach an insulting message of your own devising.

This would appear to be rather less sophisticated than a proper IRC or Twitter-controlled LOIC install, but has the merit of being simpler. Whether this tremendously simple way of joining in botnets will finally mobilise large numbers of pro- or anti-Wikileaks vigilantes remains to be seen. For now, it appears that the effective DDoS attacks – and other more sophisticated meddling going on – are emanating from relatively small numbers of people.

It would seem that in general most people are aware how relatively unimportant and easily replaceable a part Julian Assange and Wikileaks have played in the release of the classified US files, which continue to mildly interest the outside world. ®

Bootnote
1) Reader be warned: Participating willingly in a DDoS attack is a crime in many countries. Even if this doesn’t bother you, you download software and visit webpages of this sort at your own significant risk: campaigners on both sides have shown little in the way of scruples, and ordinary criminal scammers are now exploiting the situation too.

WikiLeaks supporters milk Twitter API in DDoS attacks

Dec
10

WikiLeaks supporters are milking Twitter’s application programming interface to carry out attacks that have led to crippling slowdowns at MasterCard.com, Visa.com and other websites that cut off funding to the whistle-blower outfit.

A relatively new Java-based version of the Low Orbit Ion Cannon, which protesters use to direct torrents of traffic at sites they disapprove of, allows users to specify a Master Twitter ID, according to a Thursday post on the Sans blog. It’s the first time the point-and-click attack tool has included the Twitter field, security researchers said.

“The Twitter angle in this application piqued my interest,” Sans handler on Duty, Mark Hofman, wrote. “It is using the Twitter API in a new and creative way, certainly one that hadn’t readily occurred to me.”

He didn’t say exactly what JavaLOIC did with Twitter’s API, but Jose Nazario, senior manager of security research at Arbor Networks, speculated it probably coordinated the timing and targets of attacks. If so, it wouldn’t be the first time Twitter has been used as a command and control channel for corralling large networks of PCs. There are even tools available to streamline the configuration of Twitter-based C&Cs.

Sophos has more more additional details about LOIC, including its Twitter feature, here.

Other versions of LOIC use internet relay chat channels to coordinate attacks. Volunteers install the program and then enter the address of an IRC server. From there, organizers are able to instruct thousands of machines to march in lock step as they attack websites. The ability to turn on and off huge amounts of traffic quickly makes the attacks much harder to defend against.

Sean-Paul Correll, a threat researcher with Panda Security, said at the height of the attacks on Wednesday, there were more there 3,000 machines participating in LOIC-based attacks against MasterCard, Visa, PayPal and other sites that cut off services used to fund WikiLeaks. He also observed independent botnets with as many as 30,000 compromised computers also participating in the attacks.

The attacks have wreaked a fair amount of damage. By Correll’s estimate, MasterCard has suffered more than 32 hours of downtime since Tuesday, with 23 of those hours being almost continuous. Parts of Visa’s site saw more than 21 hours of downtime. The most crippling attack on Visa started a little before 1pm California time on Wednesday, when organizers transmitted a command over IRC to flood the site with more traffic than it could handle.

“It was down instantly,” he told The Register. “As soon as they started pointing the servers over to it, it was toast.”

Visa and MasterCard representatives have said no customer data has been accessed as a result of the attacks, and transactions have been able to go normally. Still, it was widely reported that MasterCard’s Securecode service for secure online transactions was offline for much of Wednesday.

Nazario said as the attacks have progressed many have begun attacking targets’ backend servers, where damage is often more severe despite it being less obvious to outside observers.

“If you can’t load the Visa homepage, so what,” he explained. “But if the backend for some of these sites is down, where it integrates with other vendors or other sites, then they have a problem. That’s what [the attackers] seem to be trying to do now as a way of shutting down their ability to take and make payments.”

WikiLeaks sympathizers aren’t the only ones getting into the denial-of-service game. Anonops.net, a site used to by organizers of the attacks, was itself taken down on Wednesday night, Correll said. At time of writing, it was inaccessible. ®