As the struggle intensifies between those who would limit access to information and those who believe the internet should remain entirely unregulated, the cyber war has gone offline: in bedrooms and boardrooms, in the streets, in court, even in prison, hackers, trolls and associated free speech activists are fighting against governments and corporations over the digital world’s greatest resource: data. Esquire went inside the Internet Underground – Anonymous, LulzSec and other groups of pranksters and protesters – to find that as the authorities harden their stance, the hackers are regrouping, wounded but defiant. And the battle has only just started.
On 10 July 2011, in a secret chat room in cyberspace, a 20-year-old hacker who calls himself Lolcat waits by his laptop for the stroke of midnight. He’s joined by 10 others, several of whom he’s hacked with before, though he only knows them by their tags – according to the group’s rules of operational security, they are not to meet, Skype, reveal real names or key biographical details. Some have voice-chatted and as a result, Lolcat reckons he can guess the age and hometown for four of them, and the country for two. But that’s about it. What he knows for certain, however, is that these hackers make headlines.
Several members of Anonymous are here, as are some key members of LulzSec: the elite hacker group that had broken away from Anonymous earlier that year. And at this point, Anonymous and LulzSec could scarcely be more notorious. It’s as though WikiLeaks, which started in 2010, passed a baton to its anarchic cousins, and now no one’s safe.
Whether pulling pranks like hacking Google’s Hot Trends (the list of the US’s fastest-rising search terms) and placing a swastika at Number One, or stoking the Arab Spring revolutions by taking down Middle East government websites and releasing email addresses and passwords of government officials, Anonymous (tagline: “Expect us”) has managed to pique the powerful at a time when the spirit for protest is high, but the old methods, the chants and marches, feel stagnant.
At this point, its targets included the Church of Scientology (for trying to force US gossip blog Gawker to take down some “crazy” footage of Tom Cruise); Visa, MasterCard and PayPal (for refusing to process donations to WikiLeaks); the CIA (just because); the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, Libya, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Zimbabwe, Australia, Malaysia and Italy; and sundry other victims including the Arizona Police, the NHS and, more than once, Sony.
Tonight, they’re about to add Rupert Murdoch to the list, even though LulzSec officially retired the month before, on 26 June, after a blistering hacking spree, which it christened “50 Days of Lulz”. But then a vulnerability was discovered at News International and the temptation was too great.
It all started a week previously when one of their number – who may be as young as 17 – became enraged by the Milly Dowler scandal: the revelation that the News of the World [then published by News International], had been hacking into the voicemail of a 13-year-old Surrey girl who’d been abducted – and, it turned out, murdered – simply to break new stories about the case. He started looking for a way into sister paper The Sun.
“Just sailing around and poking at it,” is how Lolcat puts it.
“Then he found a Local File Inclusion bug,” he says, “but we had to wait till midnight for it to work. So I told [fellow LulzSec member] Topiary and we decided to pwn The Sun.” (Pwn, a tech and gaming term, means “perfectly own” or take complete control.)
A gang was assembled, 11 strong, and once the clock struck 12, the attack was on – a breach so easy that the 17-year-old performed it alone. Lolcat popped out for a cigarette and by the time he got back, they were in.
“First thing we did was build a ‘shell’,” he says. “That gives you basic control over a website and allows you to browse through files and execute commands via your web browser. Then we backdoored everything. It’s like if we went through the building rigging all the locks and leaving the windows open. So if one breach is found, at least there are 9,001 others.”
They couldn’t get root access – complete control of the site – because the passwords were too difficult to decrypt. So they tried a “local root exploit”: a piece of code that, from Lolcat’s description, is akin to using dynamite to blow a safe rather than cracking the combination.