Sun, Dec 12, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Cyber war erupts over WikiLeaks

In an attack unprecedented in scale, hackers have taken down the Web sites of MasterCard and PostFinance

By Esther Addle and Josh Halliday  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Tania

It is, according to one breathless blogger, “the first great cyber war,” or as those behind it put it more prosaically: “The major shitstorm has begun.”

The febrile technological and commercial skirmishes over WikiLeaks escalated into a full-blown online assault on Wednesday when, in a major breach of Internet security, a concerted online attack by activist supporters of WikiLeaks succeeded in disrupting MasterCard.

The act was in explicit “revenge” for the international credit card company’s decision on Monday to freeze all payments to the site, blaming illegal activity. Though it initially would acknowledge no more than “heavy traffic on its external corporate Web site,” MasterCard was forced to admit last night that it had experienced “a service disruption to the MasterCard directory server,” which banking sources claimed meant major disruption throughout its global business.

The company said its systems had not been compromised by the “concentrated effort” to flood its corporate Web site with “traffic and slow access.”

“We are working to restore normal service levels,” the company said in a statement. “There is no impact on our cardholders’ ability to use their cards for secure transactions globally.”

In an attack referred to as Operation Payback, a group of online activists calling themselves Anonymous said they had orchestrated a distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack on the site and issued threats against other businesses that have restricted WikiLeaks’s dealings.

Also targeted in a dramatic day of frenzied Internet activity were the Web site of the Swedish prosecution authority, which is currently seeking to extradite WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange, on sex assault charges against two Swedish women, and that of the Stockholm lawyer who represents them. The sites of US Senator Joe Lieberman and the former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, both vocal critics of Assange, were also attacked and disrupted, according to observers.

“We will fire at anything or anyone that tries to censor WikiLeaks, including multibillion-dollar companies such as PayPal,” an online statement said. “Twitter, you’re next for censoring WikiLeaks discussion. The major shitstorm has begun.”

Twitter has denied it has censored the hashtag, saying confusion had arisen over its “trending” facility.

Though DDOS attacks are not uncommon by groups of motivated activists, the scale and intensity of the online assault and the powerful commercial and political critics of WikiLeaks, ranged in opposition to the hackers, make this a high-stakes enterprise that could lead to uncharted territory in the Internet age.

A spokesman for the group, a 22-year-old from London who called himself Coldblood, said it was acting for the “chaotic good” in defense of Internet freedom of speech. It has been distributing software tools to allow anyone with a computer and an Internet connection to join in the attacks.

The group has already succeeded this week in bringing down the site of the Swiss bank PostFinance, which was successfully attacked on Monday after it shut down one of WikiLeaks’ key bank accounts, accusing Assange of lying. A PostFinance spokesman, Alex Josty, told reporters the Web site had buckled under a barrage of traffic.

“It was very, very difficult, then things improved overnight, but it’s still not entirely back to normal,” Josty said.

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