‘Hacktivists’ take revenge for WikiLeaks
ByMary Watkins and Tim Bradshaw in London and Joseph Menn in San Francisco
Published: Financial Times, December 9 2010 00:01
Computer hackers disrupted MasterCard’s online payment processing system for several hours on one of the busiest shopping days of the year as part of revenge attacks on companies that blocked services to WikiLeaks, the whistle-blowing website.
A group of “hacktivists” known as Anonymous spearheaded the attacks and dubbed them “Operation Payback”.
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Automated barrages by WikiLeaks’ defenders also temporarily shut down web pages controlled by other companies that have cut connections with WikiLeaks, including credit card network Visa, whose public home page was down for less than an hour. In a statement, Visa said its regular payment processing was unaffected.
As government criticism of WikiLeaks’ mass release of US confidential diplomatic cables has intensified, so too has online support for the site, particularly among internet freedom enthusiasts.
MasterCard initially blamed problems with its website on heavy traffic but later said some SecureCode services had been disrupted. It reassured customers that core processing capabilities have not been compromised and cardholder account data has not been placed at risk”.
But Jon Prideaux, deputy chief executive of SecureTrading, a UK internet payment service provider servicing several large retailers and charities, said SecureCode had been unavailable for up to six hours.
“This is one of the biggest trading days in the internet shopping calendar. This is an extremely bad time for this to happen,” Mr Prideaux said.
Some technology experts said the disruption of core commerical services by a few thousand individuals could prompt calls for internet service providers to take a more active role in policing their networks and blocking connections from computers identitifed as participating in what are known as denial-of-service attacks.
“We need to drain the swamp of malicious activity”, said Andy Purdy, former acting director of the National Cyber Security Division at the US Department of Homeland Security.
Twitter, which has not suspended WikiLeaks’ accounts, apparently did drop postings from Anonymous, though they could resume under a new name.
The attack comes just a day after Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ founder, was remanded in custody by a London court until December 14 after Stockholm issued an arrest warrant in connection with alleged sexual offences in Sweden. Mr Assange denies the charges.
The hacking free-for-all knocked offline a website of Swedish prosecutors, in retribution for the sex charges that led to Mr Assange’s arrest.
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There were also attacks on PostFinance.ch, a bank that froze Mr Assange’s accounts, preventing other customers from making transactions for more than 11 hours, according to Panda Security.
The official blog at PayPal, which the internet payments processor had used to explain its decision to stop handling donations to WikiLeaks, was shut by denial-of-service attacks for more than eight hours.
WikiLeaks itself used a fresh dump of diplomatic cables to hit back at MasterCard and Visa, which has also suspended use of its network. It released a cable that appeared to show US diplomats had lobbied against proposed Russian legislation this year that could “disadvantage” US payment card companies.
More traditional lobbying groups such as The Internet Society, an industry body which promotes internet standards and policy, have also leapt to WikiLeaks’ defence.
However, WikiLeaks remains defiant, saying that Mr Assange’s arrest will not prevent it from continuing to publish cables.
“We will not be gagged, either by judicial actions or corporate censorship,” WikiLeaks said in a statement. It also named Amazon and EveryDNS as companies that had cut links.
All of the companies that have suspended their services denied they were subject to political pressure but said that WikiLeaks had violated customer agreements.
WikiLeaks has seen its own site come under attack from hackers and has also been forced to shift its main website to a Swiss domain after Amazon threw it off its web host. Last week EveryDNS.net, the company administering its domain name system, terminated its services.
Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence, an international group of whistleblowers that includes Daniel Ellsberg, the former US government analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, also issued a statement in support of WikiLeaks.
Mr Ellsberg added: “The truth is that every attack now made on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange was made against me and the release of the Pentagon Papers at the time.”
Security experts said that cyber attacks were increasingly being used as a weapon to embarrass large organisations and further attacks were “highly likely”