This week’s attack on the Vatican website comes on the heels of U.S. federal indictments against an international group of alleged computer hackers affiliated with a shadowy group known as Anonymous.
Early this week the U.S. Attorney in New York indicted five alleged computer hackers. Authorities describe four of them as principal members of a loose hacker confederation known as Anonymous. Despite these and other hacking arrests, Anonymous claimed credit the very next day for a cyber-attack on the Vatican's web site.
Douglas Salane, the director of New York’s Center for Cybercrime Studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says the Anonymous group, with it's lack of formal structure, resembles the Occupy Wall Street movement.
“They are loosely structured groups," he said. "It looks like people operate under that banner and leave it. It looks like individuals involved can be anyone from people who don’t have [jobs and] do this fulltime, to people who have regular jobs and do this on the side.”
Salane says there is no typical hacker. Some, he says, are activists like Anonymous motivated by a cause; others may be government spies; still others are thieves or adolescents seeking amusement. Computer expertise is not even necessary.
“Today, there is a malware industry out there, which provides a range of tools to do hacking [so] that people don’t have to be sophisticated to use it," he said. "In fact, the people who produce malware actually provide support for it just like a regular legitimate software package.”
Former FBI agent Brad Garrett says while no one is in charge of Anonymous, the group has the potential for considerable damage.
“The big concern is they do have the wherewithal to do destructiveness to national security, to corporations and even to individuals," said Garrett.
Anonymous has shut down the web sites of various governments overseas; they’ve hacked into U.S. police web sites, as well as those of large corporations and credit card companies.
Even conversations between U.S. and British law enforcement officials about ways to combat hacking have been hacked.
“It's kind of like they're poking the tiger, you know, but in this case, they're poking the FBI," said Kevin Mitnick, a former hacker."They want to prove to the government, apparently, that they're smarter.”
Douglas Salane says even with high-level prosecutions, hacking of all kinds will continue.