Leaderless collective? I don't think so...
"The wider collective might claim to be leaderless," Massie explained. "But the IRC channel had a power structure and hierarchy that was clear from looking at what was going on."
"There might be a debate on targets and whether to continue an attack against Mastercard, for example, was put to a vote. But when we arrested suspects we discovered private channels for ops and admins."
Analysis of copious volumes of IRC logs allowed police to identify leaders who suggested and organised attacks, shouted down dissenting voices, and directed discussions. Individuals who set up and maintained these channels were also of interest to police. Hundreds of thousands of lines of IRC chat log were presented as evidence in the eventual prosecution of suspects believed to be instigators and organisers of DDoS attacks.
At least a few of the individuals whom police investigated had made full use of TrueCrypt (for encryption) and TOR for anonymity, said the computer expert. However, Massie said, others erred in providing snippets of clues about their location and other information in idle chit-chat on the channel and, more particularly, by using well-established nicknames that they'd also used as XBox gaming tags or elsewhere on the 'net when they were still kids.
"We were able to tie their digital identities to real life identities," Massie explained. "Now that the suspects are in their 20s, they are security conscious, but they were using the same nick when they were a kid on gaming forums or elsewhere. They made mistakes."
Once individuals appeared to have links to an online identity, traditional methods of policing took over - including surveillance leading up to arrests at several residences when computer equipment was seized. Several suspects were later interviewed under caution. Meanwhile the painstaking work of computer forensics continued.
Weatherhead (Nerdo) said nothing except "no comment" during police interviews. He also made extensive used of TrueCrypt on his computers.
However innovative computer forensics work by Detective Constable Urooje Sheikh at the PCeU uncovered key fragments of evidence that became key in the subsequent prosecution.
"Nerdo made full use of TrueCrypt but DC Sheikh managed to identify what was going on, uncovering evidence a lot of people would have missed," Massie said, praising the expertise of his former colleague.
Among this evidence was a cease and desist letter sent to a Russian ISP called Heihachi, which offers so-called bullet-proof hosting. This allowed the prosecution to present evidence in court that Weatherhead had contracted services on behalf of the AnonOps group from Heihachi, which the prosecutor described as a "safe haven" for cybercrime.
Specifically Sheikh found "internet artefacts" relating to a cease and desist letter sent to Heihachi to its customers in data stored on one of Weatherhead's computers.
The jury accepted prosecution arguments that Weatherhead had served as the network administrator for the AnonOps group when it convicted him of conspiracy to organise DDoS attacks. It rejected defence arguments that although Weatherhead might have created the AnonOps channel, he was merely an observer who played no part in organising or participating in attacks.
Massie said those tempted to take part in so-called hacktivist actions needed to understand that there are "real life consequences to online actions" both to the organisations targeted as well as themselves.
While early cybercrime prosecutions in the UK were hindered by the unwillingness of victims to testify, or - in the case of viral outbreaks - the difficulty of identifying possible victims, police have adapted their procedures to cover this issue. Financial harm caused by attacks and the number of victims plays a key part in allowing judges to apply sentencing guidelines designed for conventional crimes to offences committed in cyberspace.
"Finding real world victims and estimating financial harm is very important in investigations," Massie concluded.
Judge Peter Testar warned Weatherhead to prepare for a possible jail sentence. Weatherhead and his three co-accused, who pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing, face a sentencing hearing in January at a date yet to be determined. ®
Sponsored: Webcast: Ransomware has gone nuclear