A few weeks ago the hacktivist group LulzSec - who previously rapidly disbanded as a police operation closed in on them - claimed to have re-formed. Their stated purpose was to carry out one last operation against Rupert Murdoch's papers. The Sun website was defaced to direct viewers towards a fake story reporting the tycoon's death, and a large amount of News International emails were stolen. Despite claiming that it had re-formed just for the one attack the group appears still to be operating, albeit in a reduced form.
This is hardly surprising given the arrest of several members of LulzSec, and recently one - known as Topiary - was detained in the Shetland Islands. Others were detained in London and the North-West. Whilst there is some suspicion that the man arrested in the Shetlands was not in fact the real LulzSec figure at the time of writing he remains in police custody, and so this seems likely to be misdirection, I suspect.
Those arrested so far have all been teenaged, and despite a formidable reputation LulzSec and indeed the much larger Anonymous collective use only basic methods to carry out their raids. Threats against NATO for example received widespread coverage but in fact obtained nothing of any real worth, based on releases so far. Ultimately, this shows how the PR value of these operations has in general been much more impactful than the damage itself. Most breaches have been through the lax application of security standards, which is why email tends to be compromised more than other data. (This is scant consolation to some firms and figures who have still taken massive dives following an attack, however.)
Anonymous has also suffered more arrests recently, with fourteen hacktivists being arrested in the US, and four more in Holland. These are all related to last year's attacks on PayPal following the WikiLeaks scandal, which arose as a result of the firm withdrawing its services to the website. PayPal continues to be threatened, this time with an embargo, as Anonymous supporters are being asked to shut their accounts. It is unclear as yet what impact this is having in comparison to more offensive action.
The background to Anonymous hacktivists is also interesting, as shown in a list of people suspected to have been involved in the anti-PayPal operation. These generally failed to employ protection of their own IP addresses and used the generic Low Orbit Ion Cannon to mount their assault (a server stress-test tool with a name borrowed from the Command and Conquer series). These people perhaps fall better into the category of general activists than hackers and pose relatively little threat, other than through their mass. In fact both LulzSec and Anonymous are reviled by "real" hackers, such as the former US (?) Serviceman known as the Jester, who recently disrupted the websites and Twitter feeds of both .
However, the loose organisation of Anonymous in particular means that it will not be terribly affected by arrests or interdiction by other hackers. In fact as shown in Italy and elsewhere police action just tends to draw immediate reprisals from new people joining the cause. Anonymous is much more of a brand than a structured group, albeit it does have at least some hierarchy, and thus it is highly resilient: attacks will continue against various cause celebre. LulzSec figure Topiary summed this up very well on his final Twitter post (having deleted the rest), which said "you can't kill an idea". Ironically, assuming that he is indeed the man arrested in Shetland the police may very well be on the way to killing off LulzSec, which seems to have had very few members despite its high profile. Indeed, this is probably why so much effort has focused on it compared to the much larger Anonymous movement, particularly since it was responsible for hacking UK websites including that of SOCA.
Currently, there is a trend of disappointment in some quarters over the hacktivism movement in general, which has been to some exent discredited by the more irresponsible actions of LulzSec and others. Ultimately, it is best to think of many of those involved "for the Lulz" as electronic graffiti-spraying youths or the sort of people who join the Black Bloc. This is in stark contrast to the phenomenal reach and power of organised criminal groups and state-sponsored cyber efforts, which remain the most potent threat to British and other Western commercial interests. Despite the headline-grabbing nature of LulzSec and Anonymous, the real campaign is being waged in the shadows.
Follow Justin Crump on Twitter: www.twitter.com/sibyllic