Authorities in the United States, Britain and Ireland have struck a serious blow to an international hacking collective associated with the group Anonymous – turning one of its key members into an informant and arresting five more in a rare and significant hacking-related prosecution.
The revelation that Hector Xavier Monsegur, one of the purported leaders of the hacking group Lulz Security, had been helping the FBI for months sent shock waves throughout the hacktivist community. In court papers unsealed this week in New York, law enforcement officials revealed that Mr. Monsegur – who operated under the pseudonym Sabu and is very well-known in hacking circles – had already pleaded guilty to various hacking-related offences last summer. In part by using information provided from a co-operative Mr. Monsegur, police in three countries arrested five more alleged LulzSec members.
The arrests represent a counterpunch against an amorphous group of hackers that has recently seen its profile skyrocket. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and Scotland Yard were left red-faced last month when LulzSec members managed to record a private conference call between members of the two law-enforcement agencies. More recently, members of the wider Anonymous group posted videos threatening to divulge embarrassing personal details of Vic Toews, Canada's Public Safety Minister. The threat was a response to Web surveillance legislation tabled by the Conservative government.
However, it is still unclear how much damage this week's arrests will do to the wider hacktivist community, which is notoriously hard to pin down and includes everyone from sophisticated technical experts to largely harmless hangers-on.
Law-enforcement agencies "got a lucky break," said David Skillicorn, a professor at Queen's University's School of Computing. "As soon as you get one guy, you have two threads to pull – firstly, you get everybody he's communicated with. Secondly, you learn how they do things. With those two threads to pull, you can begin reeling in other people."
On Tuesday, members of Anonymous were busy downplaying the significance of the arrests.
"#Anonymous Is an idea, not a group," said one Anonymous-affiliated group. "There is no leader, there is no head. It will survive, before, during and after this time."
Formed in 2011, LulzSec is a hacking collective loosely affiliated with the wider group Anonymous. Although somewhat politically or ideologically motivated in a few of their attacks – including attempts to hijack the websites of organizations such as Fox News – the group's exploits appear mostly undertaken for personal entertainment. In Web slang, doing something "for the lulz" implies doing it for fun.
Previous LulzSec targets have included various government websites around the globe and companies such as Visa. In the case of PBS, hackers managed to post a fake story on the public broadcaster's site claiming slain rapper Tupac Shakur was alive and well in New Zealand.
Nonetheless, the FBI has sought to describe the group as a largely criminal entity that has targeted numerous businesses and governments, in the process negatively affecting thousands, if not millions, of people.
Although this week's arrests are unlikely to permanently shut down LulzSec or the wider Anonymous community, they will almost certainly make the group's members more reluctant to trust one another, especially as the FBI begins following the leads provided by Mr. Monsegur.
"My apartment was raided this morning by the FBI," tweeted Barrett Brown, who has previously acted as an informal spokesman for Anonymous. "Feds also came to another residence where I actually was. Sabu is a traitor."
In addition to Mr. Monsegur, five others have been arrested in the international sweep: Ryan Ackroyd, Jake Davis, Darren Martyn, Donncha O'Cearrbhail and Jeremy Hammond. The exact number of LulzSec or Anonymous members is unknown and almost certainly too fluid to pin down.
"Their problem now is trust inside the group," Prof. Skillicorn said. "Especially now that someone's ratted them out."