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Video: 'Anonymous' hackers have their say

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    >>> back in this country tonight, nbc news has been given an exclusive look inside the secretive organization known as anonymous . a loose knit group of computer hackers who came to the defense of wikileaks and got the attention of law enforcement in the process. they are young and stealth and possible cyber killers. michael isikoff has more on this from our d.c. newsroom.

    >> reporter: the group has spooked major u.s. corporations. the pentagon is now singling them out as an example of the serious new cyber threats facing the country. barrett brown is an underground commander in a new warfare.

    >> it's a cyber war .

    >> reporter: brown calls himself a senior strategist for annan anonymo anonymous , a loose connection of tech savvy creditors who brought down the websites of visa and mastercard last december.

    >> we sent a message, we don't appreciate you working with the feds.

    >> reporter: the feds, the fbi is now investigating anonymous for those attacks. raiding homes and issuing dozens of subpoenas.

    >> it's amusing.

    >> reporter: a self-described anarchist, brown claims he's policing wrong doing at least as anonymous describes it. you may not know that wikileaks is protected by anonymous --

    >> reporter: joked about by some, but very serious. they call themselves hacktivists. in public protests, they hide their identities behind masks.

    >> when we break laws, we do so in service of civil disobedience .

    >> reporter: targets like h.b. gary , a major security firm some agencies rely on to keep their computers safe. last week, h.b. gary threatened to expose anonymous . the ceo resigned. how did they do it? it was tech savvy, to be sure. but also an old fashioned con. brown says a 16-year-old girl posed as h.b. gary 's founder in e-mails and tricked the computer security manager to reset his password. anonymous is credited with bringing down websites in tunisia, libya and egypt. now it's made new threats against companies and government officials complicit in what it views as the mistreatment of bradley manning.

    >> anonymous is powerful enough that it certainly instruction fear into the hearts of the biggest technology companies in the whole world.

    >> we got stuck in this --

    >> reporter: they claim to have a version of the stucksnet computer virus that was used to bring down the iranian nuclear program for several months.

    >> that's a dangerous piece of information. it's dangerous software. it shouldn't have been floating around like that.

    >> it shouldn't be in the hands of anonymous , but it is. c'est la vie.

    >> reporter: brown told us he's not personally involved in any computer hawking, but he expects they will come after him. we spoke to h. bfrmt gary 's founder who called the members of anonymous criminals, breaking into computer systems and stealing information.

    >> michael isikoff , thank you.

    >>> from southern california tonight, a

By Michael Isikoff National investigative correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/8/2011 6:28:52 PM ET 2011-03-08T23:28:52
EXCLUSIVE

A leader of the computer hackers group known as Anonymous is threatening new attacks on major U.S. corporations and government officials as part of at an escalating “cyberwar” against the citadels of American power.

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“It’s a guerrilla cyberwar — that’s  what I call it,” said Barrett Brown, 29,  who calls himself a senior strategist and “propagandist” for Anonymous. He added: “It’s sort of an unconventional, asymmetrical act of warfare that we’ve involved in. And we didn’t necessarily start it. I mean, this fire has been burning.”

A defiant and cocky 29-year-old college dropout, Brown was cavalier about accusations that the group is violating federal laws. He insisted that Anonymous members are only policing corporate and governmental wrongdoing — as its members define it.

Breaking laws, but 'ethically'
“Our people break laws, just like all people break laws,” he added. “When we break laws, we do it in the service of civil disobedience. We do so ethically. We do it against targets that have asked for it.” 

And those targets are apparently only growing in number. Angered over the treatment of Bradley Manning, the Army private who is accused of leaking classified U.S. government documents to WikiLeaks and who is currently being held in solitary confinement at a military brig in Quantico, Va., Brown says the group is planning new computer attacks targeting government officials involved in his case.

Read more reporting by Michael Isikoff in 'The Isikoff Files'

Among the methods the group is vowing to use: posting personal information about the officials on the Internet, a method known as “doxing.” The group also this week issued a threat over the Internet to “harass” the staff at Quantico “to the point of frustration,” including a “complete communications shutdown” of its Internet and phone links.  

In recent months, Anonymous — a loose collection of  tech-savvy hackers or “hacktivists” — has threatened some of the biggest corporations in the country. The group is also the target of a major FBI investigation that has included dozens of subpoenas and raids on the homes of suspected members.

(In the interview, Brown, a sometimes freelance journalist, said he is not personally involved in hacking computers, stressing that he only advises the group, participates in its internal strategy sessions and serves as its spokesman. An FBI spokeswoman on Tuesday described the bureau’s investigation of Anonymous members as “ongoing,” but declined further comment.)

Anonymous has been blamed by senior U.S. government officials — including Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn — with mounting so-called “distributed denial of service” (DDoS) attacks on major corporate and government targets. The group is believed to do this by mobilizing thousands of so-called “zombie” computers, which have been infected with viruses,  and directing  them to flood a targeted website simultaneously, creating such a huge demand for service that the site shuts down.

Champion of WikiLeaks, Mideast protesters
Anonymous is believed to have used this method in December, when it took credit for crashing the websites of  MasterCard and Visa in retaliation for their decision to cut off service to WikiLeaks. It also claimed credit for shutting down government websites in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, which it thereby helping to stoke the uprising in those countries.

Last month, the hackers group launched what may have been its most audacious attack to date, aiming its guns on HBGary Federal, a major cybersecurity firm and government contractor. After HBGary Federal’s CEO threatened to expose members of Anonymous, the group struck back — breaking into the cybersecurity firm’s computers, hijacking the CEO’s Twitter account and swiping tens of thousands of embarrassing emails that it later posted on the Internet.

Related coverage: Do WikiLeaks imitators put your e-mail at risk?

The emails appeared to show  that HBGary Federal and two other contractors were proposing a “disinformation campaign”  aimed at discrediting political allies of WikiLeaks and critics of the Bank of American and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, prompting a group of House Democrats to call for a congressional investigation into the contractors.   

Asked about Anonymous, Greg Hoglund, the CEO of HBGary, the founder of HBGary Federal, said Tuesday: “These are not hacktivists. They are criminals. They are breaking into computer systems and stealing information — and that violates multiple federal statutes.”

In the first network television interview he has given, Brown – who has been widely quoted as one of the group’s spokesmen — invited NBC to his walk up, one-room Dallas apartment and allowed a reporter to observe as he and what he said were other Anonymous members communicated in a secure chat room.

Their goal that day: drafting a threatening letter to PayPal, the online processing firm owned by eBay, in response to news that the firm had restricted service to Manning’s legal defense fund.

Threatening PayPal
“We politely ask you to finally stand up and show some backbone,” said Brown, reading from the letter on his small laptop. “Unfreeze the account, or release the funds, so Bradley Manning and his lawyers can access it. Otherwise you prove you are nothing but a puppet of a criminal government, which is violating the Geneva Convention and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

And then, said Brown: “As always, it ends…We are Anonymous. We do not forgive. We do not forget.”

“That’s our little motto,” he added.

There is still much about Anonymous that remains obscure -- and which Brown would not reveal. As he tells it, the group has thousands, if not tens of thousands, of participants, including, he claims, computer managers at major corporations and government agencies and journalists. But, he says, the group’s activities are governed, or at least shaped, by a much smaller group of a “couple dozen” people that reacts to the “ebb and flow” of events. Their overarching goal, he said, “information freedom.” 

But there is little doubt that they are capable of brutal actions. Hoglund, the HBGary CEO, said that as part of their attack on his corporate affiliate HBGary Federal, Anonymous members collected personal information on company employees, including Social Security numbers, home addresses and the names of their children. Some employees received death threats, he said.

“Anonymous is not what people think,” he added. “They are vicious individuals and they are having the time of their lives because of all the press they are receiving.”

No apologies for tough tactics
Brown, for his part, makes no bones about the fact that Anonymous plays rough.

Asked about the group’s capabilities, he said, “Well, they keep increasing, but I can tell you that our capabilities are such that, we can, for instance, go into the servers of a federal contracting company … take those servers down, delete backups, take all internal emails, take documents, shut down the websites of the owners of those companies, take everything from those websites, ruin the lives of people who have done it wrong … harass them, make sure they’ll never work again in this particular industry.

“We can expose people. We can go to the media with things, we can give them scoops. We can give them information about companies and their wrongdoing. We can organize protests —anywhere across the globe. We can get the attention of the national conversation if we need to.”

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As a possible example of its ability to penetrate secure information, Anonymous — in its attack on HBGary Federal -- has even claimed to have secured a version of the notorious Stuxnet computer virus, believed to have been used by Western intelligence agencies to set back Iran’s nuclear program. (U.S. officials have steadfastly refused to comment on Stuxnet.)

"Yeah, its dangerous software," Brown said when pressed about Anonymous' claims of access to the virus. "Shouldn’t have been floating around like that."

Should it have been in the hands of Anonymous?

"But it is,” he said. “C'est la vie."

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Explainer: The 'whos' and 'whats' of Anonymous

  • The secret "hacktivist" group Anonymous has become well known in the last few years for its online attacks on governments, businesses and organizations that offend its free-speech, open Internet sensibilities. Click on "next" at left to learn more about the group.

  • What is Anonymous?

    The loose-knit group of computer hackers reportedly formed around 2003 as an outgrowth of the influential Internet messageboard 4chan, a forum popular with hackers and gamers. The group's name came from the early days of 4chan, when a post to its forums where no name was given listed the author as "Anonymous." A spokesman for the group, identified only as “Coldblood” told Britain’s Guardian newspaper in December that the group has about 1,000 members, most of them teenagers. When appearing in web videos, members have disguised themselves with Guy Fawkes masks popularized by the book and film “V for Vendetta.”

  • What are its goals?

    “Coldblood” described Anonymous as "a loose band of people who share the same kind of ideals" and wish to be a force for "chaotic good." As might be expected from such an organization, its goals are somewhat amorphous. In general, its protests tackle issues of free speech and preserving the openness of the Internet.

  • What has Anonymous done?

    Mostly it has attacked the websites of organizations or companies that have offended its sensibilities, including the Church of Scientology, the governments of Australia, Egypt, Iran and Zimbabwe, the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church, and MasterCard, PayPal and other financial companies that cut ties with WikiLeaks following its controversial publication of leaked U.S. military and diplomatic documents. These distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks bombard the target websites with data until they cannot respond, rendering them temporarily inaccessible. In February, however, the group took its “hacktivism” to a new level, breaking into computers operated by HBGary, a U.S. government contractor, and wreaking all kinds of electronic havoc. Among other things, the hackers stole thousands of employee e-mails, which were then published in searchable form on a website similar to WikiLeaks.

  • Are these attacks illegal?

    In a Jan. 27 press release — after British authorities arrested five alleged Anonymous members after the group’s DDoS attacks on financial companies that cut ties to WikiLeaks — Anonymous described its DDoS attacks as “a new way of voicing civil protest.” It argued that arresting its members for taking part in such attacks is akin to “arresting somebody for attending a peaceful demonstration in their hometown.”

    In fact, DDoS attacks are clearly illegal under U.K. laws. U.S. laws are less clear on the issue, requiring prosecutors to show that the attackers gained unauthorized access to a computer and caused loss or damage, said Mark Rasch, head of privacy with the Computer Services Corp. and former chief of the Department of Justice computer crime unit. There is no doubt, however, that the group’s intrusion into HBGary’s computer system ran afoul of federal computer crime statutes, he said.

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