By 9am Wednesday, the IRC chatboards were on fire.
<Anon_dude>: mastercard.com is NOT down - KEEP FIRING
<laowai>: MASTERCARD on stock market : -6.38
<matamou>: Saizad: mastercard is the target!
<malak>: ps. we are winning<blake7>: we are anonymous
Over 1,200 participants had gathered online at the impromptu website anonops.net and were already several hours into their massive cyber-attack on the MasterCard website. Calling themselves "anonymous", the hackers hoped to flood the company's pages with web traffic, crashing the site - or at least gumming things up enough to make life miserable for the credit card giant. The reason: "punishment" for MasterCard's decision to stop fund transfers to Wikileaks.
An hour later, the attacks seemed to be working. But already, "hacktivists" on the other side were planning a counter-strike against Wikileaks; a strike they hoped would once again take the secret-busting website offline and out-of-view.
Welcome to the WikiWars.
Across the Internet, activists, hackers, and general mischief-makers are deploying the tricks of their trade, either in support of Wikileaks' decision to publish classified U.S. diplomatic cables, or to bring Wikileaks and its allies to their knees. Using tactics such as"denial of service attacks", "Google-bombing" and others more arcane, partisans have turned the Web into a battlefield of sorts, as they debate and argue over the roles and responsibilities of journalists, online activists and governments in the digital age.
The battle may not have started with Wikileaks, but their actions have added hot fuel to the fight - and the rhetoric.
"It is an ongoing act of war, of sabotage, against the United States," says Caroline Glick, deputy managing editor of the Jerusalem Post and senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy. "That means that Wikileaks as an entity has to be declared a foreign terrorist organization, and all the people associated with it have to be treated as illegal enemy combatants."
And from the other side, the rhetoric is startlingly similar. "The first serious infowar is now engaged," wrote John Perry Barlow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "The field of battle is WikiLeaks. You are the troops."
The opening shots in this fight came almost immediately after Wilileaks' co-founder Julian Assange announced the much-anticipated publication of unseen, sometimes classified U.S. diplomatic cables on his website. Critics of the release moved quickly, swamping Wikileaks' host computers with requests; in effect, creating a virtual blizzard of web traffic that, for a time, prevented anyone from accessing the site.
Their victory, however, was short-lived. Anticipating the attack, Wikileaks began moving its site from host to host and domain to domain, switching web addresses and hop-scotching traffic across a tangle of hidden locations in an effort to elude future attacks. This virtual game of "Whack-a-Mole" continues to this day.
Soon a figure familiar to the "hacktivist" community who goes by the name "The Jester" began to take credit for knocking Wikileaks offline on several occasions - for what he claimed were patriotic reasons. The Jester vowed to fight as long as Wikileaks remained online.
"This is not an unprecedented attack," says Hal Roberts, fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. Roberts has studied denial of service - or "ddos" - attacks around the world, particularly those launched from authoritarian regimes like Burma. The Wikileaks attacks, he says, are nothing new...and neither are the boastful claims of responsibility.
Listen to our complete interview with Hal Roberts:
"Even though there's a specific person claiming responsibility for the attacks on Wikileaks, the actual computers that are being used to attack Wikileaks are computers of people who have no idea what's going on," says Roberts.
"The Jester is claiming responsibilty for attacks on Wikileaks," he says. "On the other side we have what's not really an organization but a very loose movement that calls itself 'anonymous' which is really an emergent community that organizes itself on a variety of discussion boards online." The MasterCard attack was just one skirmish.
And while both sides may lay claim to some victories, Roberts says they employ very different methods.
"The Jester uses clever tricks and apparently a small number of machines; by contrast anonymous uses mass numbers of widely-distributed hackers," he says. While this "hive-mind" tactic has been employed before - notably by hackers associated with 4chan - Roberts is skeptical the 'anonymous' attacks will have much of an effect.
That's a shame, says Glick, who advocates for a much more aggressive response by the U.S. government - both in the real and the virtual worlds.
"This is an act of cyber-warfare against the United States, an act of information warfare against the United States," she says. "And I haven't seen the United States bringing to bear any sort of doctrine for defending itself against this kind of attack. And that's what's so startling."
Listen to our complete interview with Caroline Glick:
Declaring Assange and Wikileaks as illegal enemy combatants and sabateurs, she says, would "...open up a whole host of actions that you can take against Wikileaks." Among those: banning the website, cutting off its funding, apprehending and interrogating Assange, and even loosing the considerable resources of the U.S. government to knock Wikileaks off the web for good.
Glick goes a step further, saying that those media outlets that received the cables - such as the New York Times and Der Spiegel - should be prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act. But, she adds, "I don't think under the current political climate in the Western world that it's possible to make the media pay a price for the kinds of things that they're doing."
She's not alone in invoking treason and punishment. California Senator Dianne Feinstein (D) has called for felony charges against Assange under the 1917 law, and Delaware Senator Joe Lieberman (I) has labeled the Australian national a traitor.
It's tough talk, and it comes as no surprise to John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or EFF.
"This was gonna happen sooner or later," he says. "I actually thought it might happen before now, but this seems to be the opening salvo in what is going to be a protracted struggle."
Barlow and the EFF have been at the forefront of numerous online freedom battles, and this one is no exception.
"We support the right the right to know. We support the right of a populace in a democracy to be informed," says Barlow. While granting that some of the leaked information may be "hazardous" to some individuals, the EFF is generally supportive of what Wikileaks is doing.
"EFF takes the position that Wikileaks, having acquired the information, has the right to disseminate it, and nobody has the right to shut them or anyone else down online."
It's a fairly robust position of support that few other organizations have taken publicly...in part, Barlow admits, due to the complicated nature of the issues, the Wikileaks organization, and co-founder Assange. However, keeping with the battlefield metaphor, he says sometimes you choose the fight, and sometimes it chooses you.
"I can't say that Mr. Assange makes the absolutely perfect poster child, especially given these allegations in Sweden, and I also think that some of the things that were released are troublesome," admits Barlow. "But you take the battle that you've got."
There are growing, and unsubstantiated, rumors online that the U.S. government may have already engaged in this cyber-battle, asserting pressure on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) or firms like Amazon and PayPal that had provided Wikileaks support or host computers - but only for a while. And there are other rumors that perhaps activists like The Jester aren't working completly alone.
"Sure there are hints," says Hal Roberts. "In this case you can certainly look at these attacks and say 'Hmm, it seems like it's in the interest of the U.S. government to have this site go down', and in fact many other governments around the world that don't want these cables released." However such hints are only suspicions and notoriously difficult to prove.
In the end, most observers believe Wikileaks will remain online and continue to publish secret documents, angering many in power around the globe.
And the online activists - pro and con - aren't slowing their battleplans, either.
On his Twitter feed, the Jester tweets:
TANGO DOWN - for attempting to endanger the lives of our troops, 'other assets' & foreign relations
And just 12 hours after launching their MasterCard barrage, 'anonymous' is regrouping for the next assault. It's moved off anonops.net to another site, but in an outgoing message, one of the hive-mind warned simply, "...payback's a b***h."
And the WikiWars rage on.