An online hacking collective claiming to be a wing of Anonymous took responsibility for shutting down major Canadian government websites on Wednesday, one day after controversial anti-terrorism legislation was signed into law.
Several federal online portals, such as the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service — the country's counter intelligence and spy body — were temporarily taken down in an effort by the covert hacking group to protest recent legislation they say infringes Canadians' privacy.
"Confirmed today that Govt of Canada GC servers have been cyberattacked," tweeted Tony Clement, the government minister responsible for Canada's technology infrastructure.
It is worth noting, another social media account claiming to be Anonymous-affiliated is doubting the validity of the attack and whether or not Anonymous was even responsible. The online hacktivist group is classically difficult to track and attribute attacks to given the anonymity of the internet.
In a YouTube video claiming responsibility for the hack, the usual automated voice of an Anonymous message said the group was acting on behalf of Canadian citizens.
"Greetings citizens of Canada, we are Anonymous. Today, this 17th of June 2015 we launched an attack against the Canadian senate and government of Canada websites in protest against the recent passing of Bill C-51," says the computed voice. "A bill which is a clear violation of the universal declaration of human rights, as well as removing our legal protections that have stood, enshrined in the magna carta for 800 years."
Bill C-51 is widely criticized by privacy and citizen rights groups, as well as the official opposition New Democratic Party, in the face of the Harper government's strong support.
"No #privacy No #encryption No #justice," tweeted the @OpCyberPrivacy Twitter account that announced the attack.
Another account, @rickfournier, announced the websites as they went down, "csis.gc.ca is #tangodown," the account tweeted, with the hashtag #killbillc51.
The Anonymous group claimed that Canada's privacy rights have been "ravaged like a back alley whore" thanks to Bill C-51, and it called on Canadians to "take to the streets in protest this 20th of June 2015."
The hack had the hallmarks of a Distributed Denial Of Service (DDoS) attack, typical of the hacking collective, and indeed the minister confirmed to reporters that's what it was. Those attacks deny access to computers or websites downed by the hostile actor and are often considered the trademark of hackers unaffiliated with national agencies. DDoS attacks do not usually result in data breaches, and generally only succeed in taking down public websites for short periods of time.
Some bureaucrats and politicians in Ottawa reported that their email and government messaging system were down or slow during the attack.
The attacks were organized on an open IRC chat room, where users were given IP addresses to target independently.
VICE News entered an Anonymous IRC chat room called #NoOneKnows and spoke with members who claimed to be responsible for the attack. The group confirmed they were an international collective with several Canadians among them and that the attack was meant as a wake up call to the Harper government on just how vulnerable they are to simple DOS attacks.
The group confirmed they did not take any data from the government websites, which were down for three hours, but expressed shock that it took "10 seconds" to take out CSIS — the intelligence agency that as they put it, should be better secured. One member said the attack was so simple "my kid" was capable of carrying out the operation.
The list of addresses to target included the websites of Justice Minister Peter MacKay, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, a litany of senators who supported the legislation, as well as lobbying firms across the country, many of whom — like car manufacturer GM and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities — had nothing to do with the anti-terrorism legislation.
The documents provided in the chat room include the name servers of many of those sites, suggesting that the self-styled vigilantes were more concerned with taking websites down than with obtaining government data.
This isn't the first time that Anonymous has gone after the Canadian government. After previous cyber-snooping legislation was introduced in 2011, Anonymous unveiled a similar campaign and led the denial-of-service attacks on Canadian government systems. It has been subject to numerous other attacks due to other bills, such as those looking to update copyright laws.
To illustrate cybersecurity concerns, one source who works on Parliament Hill told VICE News that government email accounts have no spam filters and provided a handful of obvious phishing emails that went directly to his inbox. When the staffer told the IT department, they suggested he make his own rule to catch spam or malicious emails.
The Canadian government has been aware of weaknesses in its own systems before. Back in July 2014, not only did the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) — Canada's NSA — catch Chinese hackers trying to steal Canadian intellectual property, but briefing documents obtained by the Toronto Star showed the government was in need of a cyber attack defense plan.
That plan was drawn up and implemented, but criticism has been lobbed that it is simply insufficient.
The Government of Canada set up the Canadian Cyber Incident Response Centre (CCIRC) to respond to such attacks.
"Strong IT security practices will go a long way to defending against threats such as the Anonymous hacktivist collective," reads a threat assessment from the CCIRC, obtained exclusively by VICE News under the Access to information Act. "Anonymous generally leverages open source or well-known vulnerabilities. The nature of the targets is also generally advertised in open forums such as Twitter and Pastebin, as well as mainstream media. Organizations are encouraged to consult…mitigation guidelines for advanced persistent threats and DDoS attacks."
Even government cybersecurity experts seemed impressed by Anonymous' capabilities to take down government sites.
"It's pretty amazing the amount of nodes these guys could get together for DDoS. At least 11 sites went down including the FBI," reads one email from inside Canada's public safety department after one round of attacks in 2012. "Makes you wonder what can be done to stop such embarrassing attacks."
A secret security briefing note from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service on the group reads that: "foreign governments may view groups like Anonymous as serious national security threats that must be dealt with using 'muscular' means or as an extension of Western governments' and intelligence services' operations."
That appears to be the sort of philosophy governing the Canadian government. Bill C-51 gives broad new powers for Canada's spy agencies — including its signals intelligence agency, CSE, which handles cyberdefense.
Anonymous has also gone after American systems, including those of the CIA and FBI in high profile attacks declaring, as in the case of these attacks on the Canadian government websites, that those servers were "TANGO DOWN."
Patrick McGuire contributed reporting to this article.