The Anonymous hacking collective attacked a US Justice Department website over the weekend to protest against the prosecution of Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz.
The hacktivists followed up the initial assault on Ussc.gov, the US Sentencing Commission's website, by planting an easter egg in the form of retro video game Asteroids on the government portal.
As part of its Operation Last Resort, the hacktivist group also released encrypted files supposedly containing state secrets, for which it has threatened to release encryption keys unless the DoJ "reforms".
The miscreants managed to infiltrate Ussc.gov on Saturday morning. They said the break-in was in retaliation against FBI prosecutions against Anonymous members and what it sees as the harsh handling of the Swartz case by the US Justice Dept.
Internet prodigy Swartz killed himself at his New York apartment earlier this month after he faced potentially years in jail for allegedly planning to redistribute articles copied from science journal archive JSTOR; his family accused the prosecution pursuing their son too aggressively.
In its statement, Anonymous said the Justice Department had "crossed a line" with the Swartz prosecution, prompting its decision to attack the Sentencing Commission, the body responsible for putting together sentencing guidelines for prosecutors.
The hacktivists said:
Two weeks ago today, a line was crossed. Two weeks ago today, Aaron Swartz was killed. Killed because he faced an impossible choice. Killed because he was forced into playing a game he could not win - a twisted and distorted perversion of justice - a game where the only winning move was not to play.
The group is also threatening to expose sensitive information about the US government, purportedly contained in a 1.3GB encrypted file titled Warhead-US-DOJ-LEA-2013.AES256, which it claimed it had obtained after infiltrating numerous unnamed sites. The group has encouraged internet denizens to distribute the file (which it refers to as a "warhead"), and it has since become available as a torrent through file-sharing networks.
The group has threatened to release the encryption keys needed to unlock this file. It said that other documents may follow. Whether this scrambled data actually contains anything meaningful cannot be verified and the whole exercise, beyond the defacement of the DoJ website, may easily be a massive bluff.
The FBI, meanwhile, has launched a criminal investigation into the hack. "We were aware as soon as it happened and are handling it as a criminal investigation," said Richard McFeely of the FBI's Criminal, Cyber, Response and Services division, in a statement, AP reports. "We are always concerned when someone illegally accesses another person's or government agency's network."
Anonymous followed up the initial assault by planting an easter egg for retro video game Asteroids on the Ussc.gov site. The site was unreachable on Monday morning, most likely because filters have been applied blocking access from outside the US or because it has been taken down for repairs.
"Asteroids is a far better game than sentencing innocents and scapegoats," an update from the semi-official AnonymousIRC account stated, adding "regarding #USSC: So far we had much lulz and win. The db was a fake but created lulzy art… and Asteroids just rocks."
Net security firm Sophos reports that Asteroids has re-appeared on Eastern District of Michigan's United States Probation Office website. A game of Nyan-cat-flavoured Asteroids will begin if you enter the Konami code* with the website open. Surfers see a message before the Asteroids game begins; the page in the background slowly disintegrates as surfers shoot lasers from their in-game space craft.
Swartz, who co-created RSS 1.0 and Reddit, faced trial on charges that he had used MIT's network to download millions of articles from the not-for-profit academic journal archive JSTOR, with the initial aim of republishing them without restriction.
The charges put against him could have seen him jailed for a theoretical maximum of 50 years. After the material was returned, JSTOR declined to press charges, despite which the DoJ pushed forward with the case, partly on the basis of an initial criminal complaint from MIT. Swartz was found hanging in his Brooklyn home on 11 January.
Anonymous defaced two websites on the MIT domain days after Swartz's death, replacing regular content with a tribute to the internet activist and a call to reform the US copyright system and computer crime prosecutions. The group later interfered with the operation of MIT's email system, also as a protest against actions taken against Swartz. ®
* Typically, Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right B, A, Start; a button sequence used to activate cheat modes in 1980s video games that has since spread.