Anonymous, a loosely organized group of hackers that has targeted big businesses and governments, could be co-opted by nation states and terrorist groups that want to use it for their own ends, cybersecurity experts said.
Anonymous reportedly has some 50,000 members. It is generally believed to not have a central leadership. That leaves it open for infiltration by hackers affiliated with nations such as China, Russia or Iran. They could surreptitiously use or manipulate the organization to carry out attacks on their behalf, said Lewis Shepherd, director of the Microsoft Institute for Advanced Technology in Governments.
“There is evidence of this, but it is classified,” Shepherd said at the Counter Terror Expo in Washington, D.C. Al-Qaida in its literature has also expressed interest in using the group, he added.
Anonymous has been called everything from hacktavists, to terrorists, and has attacked governments of all types. The group is also well known for going after child pornographers and white supremacists. About three dozen of its members have been arrested.
There is precedence for such groups being infiltrated, Shepherd said. The former Soviet Union and China in the 1950s and 1960s were adept at infiltrating and sometimes taking over home grown national liberation movements in developing nations and using them in their global rivalry against the West.
“They didn’t always have complete control of the operations of these national liberation movements, but strategically they were certainly able to exploit their activities,” he said.
The degree of state sponsored influence or guidance in Anonymous’ ranks is unknown, and hasn’t received a lot of attention yet, he added. Companies who find themselves the target of Anonymous should take responsibility for protecting their own data, he said. But stopping a nation state from an attack is something different. In that case, there has to be a close partnership between industry and government.
David J. Smith, director of the Potomac Institute Cyber Center, said Anonymous’ greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: it is leaderless, it is amorphous and nobody knows who they are.
“If somebody decides they are going to be Anonymous, they are anonymous. So you could get Russians, Chinese, Iranians. You could start getting a nation-state threat, or ... an Al-Qaida getting into the business of masquerading, literally, as Anonymous,” Smith said. “I think that is something we really need to take a look at.”