As over a thousand Hamas rockets rained down on Israel during Operation Pillar of Defense last November, Israel faced a second front — a major cyber-attack on government and private computers, coordinated by a group called Anonymous. OpIsrael, as the assault was called, saw the rate of attacks by hackers against Israeli sites climb significantly during the week of the war. Messages on Facebook pages and Twitter feeds declared the hackers’ solidarity with the Arabs of Gaza, and condemned Israel for bombing targets in the Strip.
That Arab and other hackers could be recruited to attack Israel, especially at a time of heightened tension with the Palestinians, is unsurprising. But what is perhaps surprising is that Anonymous — or groups that claim to be part of the worldwide hacker movement — have not spared Arab regimes. Over the past several years, as the Arab Spring took root, Anonymous, or hackers representing themselves as such, have launched major hacking operations against nearly every Middle East country, including Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and even Iran. And some of those operations did far more damage to their targets than OpIsrael did here.
It appears that Anonymous is an “equal opportunity” hacker group, said Dr. Tal Pavel, an expert on the Internet in the Middle East. A professor at Tel Aviv University, Pavel also runs a website called MiddleEasterNet, which keeps tabs on hack attacks and other interesting Internet developments that affect Middle Eastern countries.
Pavel was speaking at the annual event of the Israel Internet Association (ISOC-IL), where top computer and Internet industry leaders gathered last week to discuss everything from future trends in search engine technology to the future of TV, Internet marketing, gaming, and branding. “The main concern of Anonymous, and the main reason it organizes hacking attacks, is to prevent Internet censorship. The credo of Anonymous is to promote freedom of individual expression in the online and physical world,” said Pavel.
Who, or what, is Anonymous? It’s a group that has taken upon itself to right the wrongs of society, starting with censorship and government repression, all the way to campaigns against social injustice, pedophilia and even UFOs. The identity of Anonymous hackers is almost never known, but from the way they think and behave, it appears there are a lot of kids involved. “For Anonymous, there is only black and white, no gray areas. Everything is straightforward.”
What Anonymous is not, says Pavel, is organized. “There is no official membership, no committee that clears statements or position papers. No one can claim to be a spokesperson or chapter chairperson. It’s the ultimate anarchy.” There are also competing interests at work, so while there is a large Anonymous group advocating an #OpIsrael hack attack against Israeli targets, there is also a Facebook page for Anonymous Israel (in fact, there are nine Anonymous Israel groups on Facebook).
The one requirement for an Anonymous group is a commitment to Internet freedom. Thus, during #OpIsrael, while hackers (presumably Arab, Turkish, Iranian, and others) attacked Israeli sites, Anonymous also issued instructions to Gaza Arabs on how to communicate with the outside world in the event that Israel tried to shut down the Internet — the hackers set up a special phone number for Gaza residents to dial out via modem to connect to the Internet.
Israel did not cut off Internet or other communications from Gaza, unlike the repressive Arab regimes that have done so. Thus, Anonymous has set up operations against many other Middle Eastern countries — sometimes triggered by a crisis, sometimes not. For Saudi Arabians, for example, Anonymous suggests using the anonymity protection software TOR to surf the Internet at all times, and not to participate in hacking attacks at all (“All the network is monitored by your police and it’s too simple for them to catch you”), but to report on what is happening in the country via social networks (but to “be sure that personal data are not included in files”).
Anonymous’ favorite tactic is the DDOS attack, in which hackers marshal the power of tens or hundreds of thousands of computers to log on to a specific server at a specific time, in the hope of overloading the server and forcing it to shut down. The tactic is successful more often than not, especially in countries with less well-developed networks (according to Anonymous sites on Facebook, DDOS attacks have been successful in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and Pakistan, among others). According to Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, Israel was able to beat back some 44 million DDOS attacks against Israeli sites during the first five days of Operation Pillar of Defense.
But while Anonymous can mount a successful attack against Israel, Israelis shouldn’t feel as if they are being singled out, said Pavel; Anonymous has attacked just about every country in the Middle East over the past several years. According to websites that list planned actions by groups that profess Anonymous affinity, no country anywhere is immune.
Among this month’s activities is a DDOS attack on China (over Internet access limitations, child labor, and other issues); an attempt to wipe out databases on Australian servers (which list names of people who are blacklisted by real estate and insurance agents and have to pay a fee to get off the list); an attack on a YouTube channel that has been pilfering, and profiting from, Anonymous videos (which, according to the organization’s credo, should be free for everyone); and a call to join “Operation Last Call, to End it All,” which basically would wipe out the current ways the world is governed and start everything over. As far as Anonymous is concerned, said Pavel, Israel is just one more country to “take down” — no better or worse than any other.