Aug 142011
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A shake-up in the hacker underground and fresh attacks suggest change is coming to computer security

AN 18-YEAR-OLD with 16 computers in a small house in the Shetland Islands: that is where a police hunt ended for the global nerve centre of LulzSec, a group of hackers whose exploits include defacing or disabling the websites of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, the CIA, a bunch of gay-bashing American Baptists, and Britain’s Serious Organised Crime Agency. Active from May to late June, when it claims to have disbanded, LulzSec’s hallmark was prankish attacks accompanied by public mockery. As well as officialdom, its targets included computer-security and online-gaming companies regarded as pompous, complacent or hypocritical.

In geekspeak “lulz” means to laugh at a victim; “sec” is for “security”. But lately the misfortune has mostly been the hackers’ own. Of LulzSec’s six presumed core members, police have arrested at least two, including, in late July, the (now bailed) Scottish teenager Jake Davis. The most expert, who goes by the alias Sabu, is still at large. About 15 members of Anonymous, a shadowy collective of skilled, politically motivated hackers, are also in police custody worldwide, according to Gregg Housh, a Boston man who ran computer servers for it but denies involvement in illegal hacks.

Authorities in America, Australia, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Norway and elsewhere are arresting high-profile hacktivists and threatening them with real-life jail (without, horrors, internet access). Old-fashioned policing, such as less severe sentences for those who snitch, is proving effective: “These are criminal networks and there are known techniques for dealing with criminal networks,” says Nils Gilman of Monitor 360, a consultancy.

Amid this pressure the hacker underground, riven by squabbles and splits over personality and policy, has turned on itself. Cyber civil wars have broken out, with rivals attacking each others’ computers and attempting to discover and reveal their real-world identities. LulzSec itself emerged from such a row a little more than three months ago when it broke off from Anonymous. The quarrel, about which targets deserved attack, was particularly bitter, says Mr Housh.

Upon forming, LulzSec distanced itself from its parent. The older group had been launching computer attacks against MasterCard, Visa, PayPal and others that had blocked donations to WikiLeaks. The LulzSec team of self-described “evil bastards” wrote in a press release that it preferred to abuse more ordinary folks and organisations for “a jolt of satisfaction”. Devilry seemingly trumped high-minded politics: the aim, says Mr Housh, was entertainment, “screwing with a person until he can’t take it anymore”. But some more puritanical hackers have turned vigilante, trying to disrupt LulzSec. Its antics, they say, encourage official crackdowns on internet freedoms.

Not in it for the money

Groups such as Anonymous and LulzSec are not motivated by money, but they can still wreak financial havoc. Following the theft of roughly 100m online gamers’ account details in April, Sony shut down its PlayStation Network for nearly a month at a cost of about $171m. A loss in consumer trust has added to that toll. Anonymous and LulzSec often post stolen data online to brag and attract potential recruits. But others can and do attempt to cash in on the loot. David Pérez of Taddong, a Madrid-based consultancy, says stolen bank-account or credit-card details often end up in online black markets. Illicit software automates many of these bourses, says Gordon Snow, assistant director of the cybercrime division in America’s FBI. Sellers and buyers need not communicate directly, so closing deals is less risky.

Lately LulzSec has changed tack, branding itself a champion of the oppressed, perhaps to shake off accusations of political indifference and sadism. A grandiloquent statement issued after Mr Davis’s arrest said: “We are sick of the twisted corporatocracy that controls us…united, we can stomp down our common oppressors and imbue ourselves with the power and freedom we deserve.”

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