Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Anonymous Fails, Once Again, to Make Its Point

The world seemed awfully impressed yesterday with the size and oomph of the revenge attacks carried out online in reaction to the arrests of four people associated with the file-sharing site

Yet now that the attacks have subsided, it’s time to see them for what they are: Nothing more than a blunt instrument that accomplishes nothing constructive.

As of today, only one of the Web sites attacked by the hacker troupe Anonymous is still apparently affected, and that belongs to the Universal Music Group recording label. It currently displays only a message saying “The Site is under maintenance. Please expect it to be back shortly.” Others that had been attacked yesterday, including the sites of the U.S. Department of Justice, the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America all seemed to be operating normally.

Thursday’s attacks, which have been described as the biggest action yet organized by Anonymous, were launched in apparent revenge for the FBI’s arrest of several people associated with the file-sharing site over suspicions of online piracy. Taking place against the backdrop of a wider, more civil protest against anti-piracy legislation currently before the U.S. Congress, the atmosphere around the attacks has been politically charged.

As Molly Wood of CNET put it, the #OpMegaUpload attacks — coming as they did on the heels of Wednesday’s peaceful anti-SOPA protest — seem like an “unsettling wave of car-burning hooligans that sweep in and incite the riot portion of the play,” spurring equally unsettling reactions from the powers that be.

Many outlets have portrayed the attacks as “hacks,” implying that someone had picked a lock in order to commit some kind of sabotage. But the tactic used — a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack — is more aptly compared to a blunt instrument, requiring neither skill nor knowledge, only large numbers of willing participants who team up to swarm a site with more requests than it can accommodate and thus overwhelm its ability to function normally.

The adjective “willing” is debatable, and perhaps inaccurate. Anonymous was able to generate such impressive numbers with the operation — it claimed more than 5,000 participants — by spamming a link in chat rooms and via Twitter that, when clicked, triggered a tool used to launch the attack. People tricked into following the link are given no context or information, and so may or may not have any idea that they’re participating in the execution of a crime.

For the record, it is illegal in the U.S., the U.K., Sweden and other countries to launch and participate in a DDoS attack like the one Anonymous organized. As anyone who has observed the evolution of Anonymous (and its various affiliates using the names LulzSec and AntiSec) should know, the FBI arrested 16 people last July, many of them charged with participating in a DDoS attack against PayPal in protest of its shutting down an account used by WikiLeaks.

In 2009, a New Jersey man was sentenced to a year and a day in prison for launching a DDoS attack against the Church of Scientology. And in 2010, a 23-year-old Ohio man was sentenced to 30 months in prison for launching DDoS attacks against several prominent U.S. conservatives, including the author Ann Coulter, former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly.

Records like that suggest to me that DDoS attacks never accomplish anything that the people who organize and carry them out attempt to do. At most, they inconvenience the people who visit and operate the targeted sites for a few hours, until the attention spans of the attackers shift elsewhere. They also generate headlines that are forgotten by nearly everyone except the targets, and sometimes law enforcement.

And so it will be this time. Mark your calendars, because the Megaupload revenge attacks will spur a series of arrests later this year. Some of those arrested will be people who didn’t know they were committing a crime. And that certainly won’t help Anonymous’ image. Nor will it further a single bit of what passes for the Anonymous agenda.

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work