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Anonymous's Offensive Against Israel Reveals the Splintered State of Hacktivism

Hacktivists have been vandalizing Israeli websites, but the landscape of online activism has changed since Israel's 2012 clash with Gaza.

by Patrick McGuire
Jul 27 2014, 4:00pm

Illustration by AnonGhost

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

In November 2012, when Israel went on its last bombing run of the Gaza Strip, I wrote about the cyber war that emerged from the horrific eight-day conflict. That was before Edward Snowden revealed to the world just how deep American surveillance ran into the internet, and it was before the FBI declared Anonymous — the infamous hacktivist collective with various independent factions — dead. Since that time, the landscape of online activism and hacktivism has changed dramatically, and the fighting in Gaza today has far exceeded the death toll in 2012.

In the time since 2012’s conflict, the impact left from large numbers of Anonymous hacktivists being arrested is being felt. Especially since one of their former elites, Sabu, turned into an FBI informant, and the Snowden revelations have made it very clear that simply using software to anonymize your identity could land you on some form of NSA watchlist. It’s no surprise then that the fervor and boldness that Anonymous formerly operated with has largely been scorched by America’s current political climate. The American government’s ironfisted approach to internet surveillance has hurt online activism, but it certainly hasn’t killed it entirely.

The typical formula for an Anonymous offensive was to announce an operation against a gigantic target (like Scientology or Israel) through a YouTube video created with a scrambled computer voice and an animation of V from V for Vendetta “speaking” to the camera. From there, websites were taken down or defaced, databases and social media accounts were hacked and hijacked, media reports were written, and the faction moved on.

Hacktivist group Anonymous launches #OpIsrael attacks. Read more here.

That mode of operation, or “Op,” seems to have largely been revised by many Anonymous activists, but it hasn’t completely been abandoned.

Israel is still facing brazen defacements and hacks, largely from a group that goes by AnonGhost, which announced this morning that it had “hacked the biggest bank system in Israel,” by posting a screenshot of a spreadsheet that appears to contain transaction info of compromised users, with an overlay of an image showing bug spray eradicating “zionists.”

The group also released a document on pastebin that appears to contain the login information for over 170 Israeli government personnel. In a report published on RT today, credit was given to AnonGhost for hacking the Tel Aviv police and the Israeli Defense Ministry, though the Israeli Cyber Bureau has not commented whatsoever on the breaches, and it’s unclear what the scope of these hacks really is.

Syrian hackers hijack IDF Twitter sparking fears of nuclear leak. Read more here.

On top of all that, AnonGhost published a list of sites they’ve defaced, along with mirror links so that even after the Israeli government reverses the damage, the defacement is still visible. The group left the following text on its target websites:

“[sic] Greetings world we are AnonGhost Team & The Terrorists. this is an urgent call for all hackers, human right organization, activist all around the world, to unite again, and start campaign against Israel, share what is really going on there, expose their terrorist activity to the world. the act of lunching rockets from Gaza sector to Israel is an acceptable and normal reaction against those pigs, that's call resistance and not terrorism, israhell is never existed its only Palestine, it's our home. if you are a hacker, activist, a human right organization, share, hack israel website, and expose to the world their crime, show to the world how much blood in their hands, bloods of innocent children and women...”

Here's what it looks like when AnonGhost vandalizes an Israeli website.

Based on AnonGhost’s insistence that Gaza is “our home,” it’s very likely these attacks are coming from an infuriated faction of hackers within Palestine, or at least from Palestinians abroad, who also identify with the Anonymous movement. They are joined in spirit by other Hamas hackers that, for whatever reason, vandalized the Facebook page of Israel’s Domino’s Pizza franchises.

AnonGhost did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

Unsurprisingly, there is a counter-offensive coming from Israel that has been targeting Palestinian targets. As Mashable reported on Friday, a pro-Israel hacker group called the Israeli Elite Force has been breaching Palestinian websites, while posting messages in support of the Israeli Defense Force.

These “classic” cyber attacks, however, do not appear to be fully indicative of the current hacktivist temperament.

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I spoke with a representative of AnonOps, another branch of Anonymous, who talked to me about the current state of the hacktivist group. The Anon told me that many hacktivists are involved in subverting and attacking Israel, but “not in the public eye.” Adding that “anons are more protective of their profiles… governments are far more against truths being exposed and their dirty laundry being aired, moreso than ever... Previously anon has been very public [with] its activities. The case is much different now.”

When I chatted with this Anon about website defacements and takedowns, they told me “defacements achieve little,” but was careful to clarify that: “People assume there is a rule book that anons work to. There are rough guidelines, but very few rules.”

It’s unclear what, if not defacements and hacks, other branches of Anonymous are doing to combat Israel. A Twitter account for #OpIsrael is followed by over 34,000 users, and regularly tweets with the #OpIsrael and #OpSaveGaza hashtags, which Anons are using to promote and organize their efforts. The account constantly tweets out information and messages about the skewed conflict erupting in Gaza today, but offers little hint as to what kind of offensive Anonymous is working on, if any.

A request to interview the operator of the @Op_Israel account was responded to with a flat, “no.”

A report published on Mother Jones yesterday, entitled “Inside Anonymous' Cyberwar Against the Israeli Government,” features a quote from an Anonymous representative who threatened that Israel would “feel fear tingling in their servers." It references the AnonGhost attacks, and teases at a major attack that will allegedly be leveled against Israel on Friday. But outside of these aggressive factions, Anonymous appears to be experiencing a bit of an identity crisis.

While speaking to my source at AnonOps, I asked them if the FBI’s allegation that Anonymous is dead carries any weight. With some factions carrying the torch of public defacements of government websites, and others going more underground, one could make the argument that Anonymous has been defanged by the court cases and surveillance that the governments of the world have used to counteract their movement.

I was told: “Given the amount of anons that have been arrested yes, of course Anon has suffered... Anon has by no means been squashed. Changed course perhaps, but not squashed.”

After asking for more specifics regarding AnonOps's interest in taking on Israel, I was told: "Both sides have upped their game. Both sides have shamelessly used children, and very publicly. While everyone loves a bit of propaganda, such as what is seen lately is wrong, quite wrong. Several other anons i've worked with are intent on illustrating how the US shows this is acceptable."

It's unclear how an expose targeted towards America's support of Israel, organized by Anonymous, would look. But apparently it's early times for the redefinition of the Anonymous movement, which has clearly been hurt by the aggressive crackdown exacted by the US Government. That said, with factions popping up all around the world to combat injustice (earlier this summer, the World Cup’s website and Brazilian government sites were taken down by hackers who represented Anonymous), it’s clear the decentralized nature of a group like Anonymous can never really be killed.

Only wounded.

Follow Patrick McGuire on Twitter: @patrickmcguire