At around 4 p.m. this afternoon, a group which goes by "Anonymous" took credit for a denial of service attack against Visa's website. Off and on for more than an hour, the website was unavailable.
The group has been announcing its attacks — part of "Operation Payback" — through its Twitter feed @Anon_Operation. As the attack started, they tweeted in victory:
This offensive came just hours after an attack brought down Mastercard's website.
NPR's Tom Gjelten spoke to Sean-Paul Correll, a threat researcher at PandaLabs who's been monitoring this Internet war between supporters and critics of WikiLeaks.
Correll said that while DDoS attacks are old news, he's never seen this level of organization. Correll has been sitting in chat rooms with the Anonymous community and said they've created software that regular people without a shred of technical knowledge can download to join a DDoS attack. That's why Visa's site went down almost immediately after the attack started at 4 p.m.
Anonymous originally formed a few years back to attack the Church of Scientology. Earlier this year, NPR's Andy Carvin wrote about their effort to fill YouTube with porn to protest the video site's removal of a little kid's page. Most of anonymous' action, though, has targeted the Motion Picture Association of America and Recording Industry Association of America in protest of their anti-piracy actions.
This is serious stuff: Last month, the FBI announced it was investigating these kinds of digital attacks. CNet reports that participating in a DDoS could mean jail-time.
Correll said, though, that these attacks, which came about after Visa and Mastercard stopped processing payments to Wikileaks, have given the group new members. He said he's seen as many as 6,000 people in a chat room, and as many as 2,200 computers attacking at once.
It's an idelogical fight, he said. One side is defending "freedom of speech, press, information." And the other is defending the "greater interest of the United States."
Most people don't know that DDoS attacks are illegal, said Correll. They visit social media sites and encounter "propaganda pamphlets recruiting people and they join."
As Correll sees it, this is a new kind of activism.
"You don't have to stand on a picket line anymore," he said. "People realize they can fight back with technology."
UPDATE, 7:10 p.m.: Read Write Web reports that Anonymous has been booted off both Facebook and Twitter. They've created a new twitter account here: @annon_operationn