IT'S WAR: Hacktivists throw in their lot with spies and the military

Code develops into a major weapon

Feature Hacktivism has lost its innocence. Once characterised in the early days of Anonymous back in 2008 by assaults against the Church of Scientology, it has now become part and parcel of far darker plans, such as the spread of terrorist propaganda by Islamic militants.

Meanwhile, over in the Ukraine, cyber militias of patriot hackers thought to have shadowy connections with Russia's intel agencies and military are blitzing websites affiliated to Kiev and the west or slinging malware.

The methods that hacktivists use to target organisations – including defacing websites, DNS hijacking, DDoS attacks, account hijacks and the stealing and leaking of confidential information – haven't changed that much over the last seven years.

The participants are still predominantly young males, so the demographic hasn't shifted that much either. What has changed, according to many but not all observations, is the motivations of attackers and the structure of the organisations to which they are affiliated.

What's changed is not so much hacktivism, rather than the roll-out of an expanded battleground for more activism all tied to conflicts in the real world. The internet has become another forum of society where war spills over to the real world.

In isolated cases – most particularly in the Ukraine – security watchers are noticing the appearance of "black operations" (black ops) campaigns launched through the internet, with cyber-militias seemingly using military doctrines of plausible deniability.

It's all a very long way from donning Guy Fawkes' masks and picketing Scientology offices or using the LOIC [Low Orbit Ion Cannon] tool to flood Visa's website with junk traffic to protest its decision to pull Wikileaks' merchant status.

Elsewhere, groups such as ISIS have taken to social media to spread their message and recruit supporters. In response, social media sites such as Twitter have been taking actions to delete accounts used to promote terrorism. Some security pros have even gone as far as describing "cyber-terrorism as the new normal".

That may be somewhat exaggerated but what's clear is that we've moved on from mayhem, mischief, 4Chan-related shenanigans and casual acts of vandalism towards hacktivism as an adjunct of information warfare.

The party's over. And we've woken up not just with a hangover, but with what's arguably an increasingly militarised internet on multiple fronts.

Guerre Monde-iale

French TV network TV5Monde was taken off air after an attack by pro-Islamic State hackers earlier this month. The hack was the most far-reaching of its type, but Islamic hackers have been busy for months in hijacking social media accounts and defacing websites in order to spread their uncompromising message.

Previous targets have included French newspaper Le Monde in January, as well as US and UK media outlets. Many of the hacks are thought to have been been pulled off using a combination of social engineering and spear phishing.

The TV5Monde attack was something of a propaganda coup for Islamic State (AKA ISIS or ISIL), but there is disagreement about the group's cyber-capabilities. Islamic State has created a special division, known as the Cyber Caliphate. The unit claimed a high profile hijack against the Twitter feed of the US Central Command prior to the TV5Monde hack. It has also carried out various other attacks in France, Russia and elsewhere.

Over recent months, many websites have been hacked and defaced with the ISIS flag, with all manner of random targets falling under the boot of the Cyber Caliphate. The majority of the hacked sites appear to be built on the WordPress content management platform.

ISIS supporters have little interest in using highly sophisticated cyber-attacks to get their message out – they just want to make enough noise to get the attention of those who might be receptive to their terrorist cause.

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