Five arrested over 'Anonymous' web attacks

Wikileaks website, AFP/Getty Some attacks were carried out to defend Wikileaks

Five men have been arrested over a spate of recent web attacks carried out in support of Wikileaks.

The five males are being held after a series of arrests at residential addresses in the West Midlands, Northamptonshire, Hertfordshire, Surrey and London this morning.

The men were arrested in relation to recent and ongoing attacks by an online group that calls itself "Anonymous".

Targets included the websites of PayPal, Mastercard and Amazon.

What is a DDoS attack?

  • A Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack aims to make websites inaccessible
  • Attackers commonly use networks of compromised computers - called a botnet - that they control to launch the attacks
  • However, the Anonymous attacks recruited volunteers to download a tool to create a "virtual" botnet
  • By overwhelming the target site with requests, the attackers can ensure that genuine visitors cannot reach the site
  • These requests look like genuine web traffic so can be hard to filter out
  • Typically, such attacks have been aimed at high-profile websites, such as those belonging to government departments, banks and political organisations
  • They are illegal in most countries

Anonymous used a technique called "distributed denial of service" (DDoS) attacks in a bid to take the sites offline.

DDoS attacks bombard a website with data until they cannot respond, rendering them inaccessible.

Not all the group's attempts succeeded.

In December, they abandoned an attack on the online retailer Amazon after it could not muster enough people to take part.

The group used an online tool called LOIC to allow members to easily take part in the bombardments of websites.

The site from which it could be downloaded reassured people that there was "next to zero" chance that anyone who used it would be caught.

But a study found that the tool makes no attempt to hide a user's net address which would lead any investigator almost straight to an attacker.

What is Anonymous?

'Anonymous' describes itself as an 'internet gathering'. The term is used to describe a collective of people who come together online, commonly to stage a protest.

The groups vary in size and make-up depending on the cause. Members often identify themselves in web videos by wearing the Guy Fawkes masks popularised by the book and film V for Vendetta.

Its protests often take the form of disrupting websites and services.

Its use of the term Anonymous comes from a series of websites frequented by members, such as the anarchic image board 4Chan.

These allow users to post without having to register or provide a name. As a result, their comments are tagged "Anonymous".

In the past, groups have staged high-profile protests against plans by the Australian government to filter the internet and the Church of Scientology.

Many Anonymous protests tackle issues of free speech and preserving the openness of the net.

Thousands of people are thought to have downloaded versions of the tool.

The Anonymous group maintained that they were not hackers but "average internet citizens" who felt motivated to act because of perceived injustices against the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks.

Many of the targets had withdrawn services from Wikileaks before they were attacked.

In recent weeks the group has turned its attention to targets in Tunisia and Egypt, attacking official sites in both countries in support of anti-government protests.

The five were arrested this morning at 0700 GMT in connection with offences under the Computer Misuse Act.

Three teenagers aged 15, 16 and 19, were arrested with two men, aged 20 and 26 in coordinated arrests.

This investigation by the Central e-Crime Unit was carried out in conjunction with law enforcement agencies in Europe and the US.

All five have been taken to local police stations where they remain in custody.

It is not the first arrests in relation to the attacks. In December two Dutch teenagers were taken into custody and subsequently released over allegations that they had helped coordinate them.

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