Teenage rampage: What Anonymous can teach us about the youth

Recent speculation in the infosec community is that the Anonymous attacks against HBGary have been fueled by some youthful energy.

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The security community has been particularly obsessed with Anonymous since the attack on HBGary. At last month's RSA conference, HBGary abandoned the showroom floor after its booth was vandalized, apparently by one or more people behind Anonymous, which has been on a crusade against anyone who has taken a stand against WikiLeaks.

Every time I visited the press room, people were buzzing about who was behind anonymous. Was it a security vendor in disguise? Was it someone who might be in the press room listening in on all the speculation?

I even detected some fear in the air. People were worried that if someone from Anonymous heard them talking about it, they would be the next target.

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Last night I stumbled upon an article in Infosec Island that suggested a teenage girl played a central role in the attacks.

Here's an excerpt:

Parmy Olson has posted an article on Forbes alleging that a sixteen year old girl who works part-time at a salon may have been the key to the HBGary Federal breach that rocked the information security community.

The HBGary Federal breach was conducted by the rogue movement Anonymous, and the subsequent release of tens-of-thousands of company emails revealed multiple instances of ethically questionable covert operations involving the security company.

Olson writes that she has been in contact with a young hacker known only as "Kayla" who claims to have conducted the social engineering exploit that made the HBGary Federal breach so successful.

Olson writes: "Kayla played a crucial role, posing as Barr to an IT administrator (who happened to be Nokia security specialist Jussi Jaakonaho) to gain access to the company’s servers... [Kayla] and four other hackers broke into his company’s servers... defacing his Web site, purging data and posting more than 50,000 of his emails online for the world to see, all within the space of 24 hours."

The article goes on to describe how the teen, supposedly the daughter of a software engineer, taught herself to hack by reading books and was able to program in C and x86 by the time she was fourteen years old.

Olson admits that she does not have much to go on in the way of proof regarding the validity of Kayla's story - only citing other Anonymous members as support - which makes it surprising that Forbes' editors ran the story at all.

Whether the story is true or not, the fact that a teenage girl could be involved doesn't surprise me. Hacking tools are so easy to acquire online and so easy to use that pretty much anyone can launch an attack if they have the time and motivation.

My friend George V. Hulme wrote a story recently about one such tool: LOIC (the Low Orbit Ion Cannon). He wrote:

How was it that a loosely-coupled group of cyber-protestors could launch -- with varying degrees of success -- targeted distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks against sites such as MasterCard, PayPal, PostFinance, and the website belonging to a Swedish prosecutor?

Turns out it's quite simple. All an attacker need do is download the open source network stress testing tool known as LOIC (the Low Orbit Ion Cannon) that is widely available. Launching an attack with LOIC is mind-numbingly easy: just point and shoot. LOIC will then flood the target with HTTP requests, UDP and TCP packets.

Those participating in the pro-Wikileaks riots could operate on their own, or choose to connect their system to the "LOIC Hivemind" voluntary botnet that is centrally controlled by those behind Operation Payback.

Since the launch of the attacks, LOIC has been downloaded nearly 70,000 times.

Some readers suggested the role of LOIC was overstated; that there are many more tools that are in wider use. But the central point -- that it's becoming easy for just about anyone to launch a DDoS -- held up.

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The Infosec Island article ends with some interesting and valid points:

--If the article is on track, it is a fascinating portrayal of the makeup of the Anonymous movement.

--If it turns out to be pure obfuscation, it reveals something about the nature of the Anonymous methodologies.

--If it is all a hoax, it shows how vulnerable the Anonymous movement and the media are to manipulation.

My parting thought is this: If a group like Anonymous is having so much success on the backs of the youth, maybe there's a lesson in it for the good guys.

Maybe we should be in the shopping malls recruiting some of these kids to fight fire with fire. If a cause like defending WikiLeaks is enough to feed a teen-age rampage against the likes of HBGary, surely there are kids out there who are equally passionate about defending cyberspace from this sort of thing.

Today's youth spend more time in cyberspace than in the real world, it seems. It's almost like a second home.

In their minds, working for the good guys could be their way of protecting their homes.

It's a thought, anyway.

--Bill Brenner

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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