Who Are the ‘Anonymous’ Hackers Supporting WikiLeaks?

BY Mike Melia  December 8, 2010 at 6:49 PM EST

A group of hackers from around the globe has launched coordinated attacks in support of WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange. The attacks have targeted organizations, such as MasterCard, and individuals, including a Swedish prosecutor, who have taken action against the anti-secrecy website or Assange. The WikiLeaks founder is jailed in Britain awaiting questioning in Sweden on charges related to sexual abuse.

On Wednesday, MasterCard, which stopped allowing payments to be made to Assange and WikiLeaks, saw a flood of so called “denial of service” attacks, which shut down their website for some time on Wednesday. The company has said that their payment services were not compromised, but the BBC reports that it has heard from vendors and card users whose transactions have been denied.

Visa and PayPal have also stopped allowing donations to WikiLeaks this week, and were targeted by hackers as a result. Postfinance, the financial arm of the Swiss postal service, was also targeted after closing an account held by Assange. The bank said he had falsely claimed residence in Switzerland to obtain the account.

The attacks stem from a loosely organized ring of international hackers that call themselves “Anonymous” and are operating under the label “Operation Payback.”

“Our primary objective is to protect sharing of digital information and culture, so everybody can access to it, so that implies defending freedom of speech,” some of the hackers told Brian Ries of The Daily Beast.

Brendan Greeley of the Economist has also been communicating with the hackers over an Internet relay chat, or IRC.

“Logs from the chat room the group was using indicate that for some time all of senate.gov – the website of every American senator – was either down completely or slow in many parts of the world,” Greeley wrote.

Independent Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman’s site was also reportedly shut down for a short time. Sen. Lieberman has called on American companies to stop supporting WikiLeaks.

Last week, Amazon stopped hosting WikiLeaks on its Amazon Web Services. They too have been the subject of attacks, but the website has been able to keep its operations running. Amazon said in a statement that it terminated its relationship with WikiLeaks because the website violates their terms of service. Supporters of Assange claim Amazon, PayPal and others have stopped supporting WikiLeaks because of pressure from the U.S. government.

The Guardian reported on the State Department contacting PayPal to stop their relationship with WikiLeaks:

PayPal’s vice-president of platform, Osama Bedier, told an Internet conference the site had decided to freeze WikiLeaks’ account on Dec. 4 after government representatives said it was engaged in illegal activity.

“[The U.S.] state department told us these were illegal activities. It was straightforward,” he told the LeWeb conference in Paris, adding: “We … comply with regulations around the world, making sure that we protect our brand.”

WikiLeaks itself has been the target of a number of “denial of service attacks.” The site has found support online where there are now roughly 700 different sites that “mirror” or post WikiLeaks’ content.

All of these attacks are carried out by botnets — computer viruses that use multiple computers to request information from a website at the same time. The sheer volume of requests at any given moment is what denies service from regular users.

Follow Hari Sreenivasan or Brendan Greeley on Twitter.