Anonymous' attack on Syrian Defense Ministry website: A window into the group's changing agenda?

Early this week, the online hacking community Anonymous launched a cyber attack on the Syrian Ministry of Defense website. This attack is one of the latest in a series of attacks by Anonymous/LulzSec against governments and companies perceived to be engaging in some form of Internet control and, more recently, human rights abuses. The defacement of the Syrian Ministry of Defense website provides an excellent example of the vigilante-style anti-censorship campaign which has characterized many of the group’s activities this year.

The Syrian Example

On Sunday August 7, hackers working under the auspices of Anonymous replaced the homepage of the Syrian Ministry of Defense with a page containing the group's logo, images from and links to sites about the ongoing Syrian uprising, and two messages--one to the Syrian people, and the other to the Syrian military--in both English and Arabic, decrying the “brutal regime of [Syrian president] Bashar Al-Assad.”

A hacker claiming to speak on behalf on Anonymous told The Huffington Post that the group targeted the Syrian Ministry of Defense to protest the increasingly violent tactics used by the Syrian government and military to quell the present uprising.

The exact timeline of Anonymous attack on the Syrian Ministry of Defense is unknown. @YourAnonNews, one of many Twitter accounts attributed to the group, publicized the attack on Sunday.
The attack was also announced on at least one other Twitter account ?this time @AnonymousIRC - on Sunday. Just after midnight on Monday, Anonymous published a screenshot of the hacked page to one of the group's popular Tumblr accounts (YourAnonNews). @YourAnonNews tweeted a link the the Tumblr post shortly thereafter.

At 3:34am EST on Monday, the group released another post to their Tumblr, titled "Missed the Syrian Ministry of Defense Hacked by Anonymous? We have video," which corroborates reports from other media sources stating that the Syrian Ministry of Defense's website was taken offline shortly after the attack.

Anonymous' Message

This recent attack is hardly the only example of Anonymous' politically-motivated "hactivism."

Over the past two years, Anonymous has attacked several Australian government websites to protest the country's Internet policies, including proposed ISP-level filtering and censorship based on a ratings blacklist. In September 2009, Anonymous brought down Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's website with a DDoS attack. Next, Anonymous led a DDoS attack against the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft on September 27, 2010, which disabled the website and nearly 8,000 others hosted by NetRegistry. A few months later, on February 11, 2010, the group launched "Operation Titstorm," a DDoS attack on the website of the Australian Parliament and several other government websites to protest a proposed Internet filter that would require ISPs to restrict users from accessing illegal and "unwanted" content, such as certain pornography and material related to gambling. Anonymous issued a press release during the take-down to explain their motives and their disdain for Internet filtration: "The Australian Government will learn that one does not mess with our porn. No one messes with our access to perfectly legal (or illegal) content for any reason."

This winter, Anonymous began a series of attacks against anyone who spoke out against Wikileaks. For example, on December 8, 2010, a DDoS attack led by Anonymous brought down the websites of MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal after the companies cancelled WikiLeaks' accounts. On January 4, 2011, Anonymous attacked websites in Zimbabwe, following a law suit brought by President Mugabe's wife against a newspaper over reports on Wikileaks.

On February 11, 2011, Anonymous forced several Iranian government websites offline after launching a series of DDoS attacks. In a press release, the group referred to the attacks as "Operation Iran" and stated their intent to protest against “the chains of oppression, tyranny and torture." On May 25, the group leaked 10,000 e-mails from Iran's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These e-mails were then uploaded to file-sharing sites such as The Pirate Bay as a continued protest against the Iranian government. According to The Next Web, an Iranian member of Anonymous on #OpIran stated that the attacks were timed to coincide with the anniversary of the 2009 election: “It’s near the election’s anniversary. We had to do something.”

Yet another example of Anonymous' online hacktivism took place in Malaysia this summer. On June 14, 2011, Anonymous announced that they would attack Malaysian websites in response to what they perceive as Internet censorship, which the group claims to be a violation of human rights. In particular, the group opposes a proposal to block ten file and video-sharing websites that the government accuses of violating copyright laws. The hackers explained in a YouTube clip that they consider the Malaysian government's Internet policies restrictive: "We fear that if you make further decisions to take away human freedom, we are obligated to act fast and have no mercy." On June 15, Anonymous acted upon their threats by attacking 51 government websites, 41 of which were taken down.

A Changing Agenda?

Since joining hands with the more politically-focused, and now disbanded, hacker group LulzSec in late June 2011, Anonymous has expanded its targets from primarily groups and organizations who promote censorship and surveillance online to, "pretty much anything standing in the way of democratic governance, human rights, and the rule of law."

So, what can we expect from Anonymous next? That's hard to say, but we'll certainly be following the group here at ONI and at Herdict.