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The informal group of hackers known as Anonymous is vowing to continue moving forward even after the arrest yesterday of 14 suspected members. One self-described member of the group said in a Twitter message: We are legion. We don't forget. We don't forgive. Defenders of the hackers say they are merely engaged in civil protest, but FBI officials worry the disruptive cyber-attacks could more in a more dangerous direction.
NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.
TOM GJELTEN: Yesterday's arrests were a major operation, carried out in nine states and here in the District of Columbia. On one level, it was meant to send a message. Just as demonstrations are permitted but rioting is not, hacking a website crosses a line: it's like throwing a brick through a window.
Steven Chabinsky is the deputy assistant FBI director in charge of the bureau's cyber division.
Mr. STEVEN CHABINSKY (Deputy Assistant FBI Director, Cyber Division): So, to the extent that hackers even can be believed to have social causes, it's entirely unacceptable to break into websites and commit other unlawful acts. There are obviously proper ways to register a voice in the United States, and unlawful activity is not one of them.
GJELTEN: Until now, the Anonymous group has generally hit targets against whom it holds some kind of grudge. The people arrested yesterday were suspected of attacking PayPal's website after the company shut off payments to WikiLeaks. The hackers have not been linked to unfriendly governments or criminal gangs, much less to terrorist networks. But they have shown considerable skill in their penetration of websites.
And the FBI's Chabinsky says that's an expertise that could impress some real bad guys.
Mr. CHABINSKY: There has not been a large-scale trend towards using hacking to actually destroy websites, to bring them down for the sake of showing that raw power. That could be appealing to both criminals and terrorists.
GJELTEN: One danger is that hackers at some point could be tempted to sell their services to other groups. Cyber-security expert Hugh Thompson, chief executive of PeopleSecurity, sees another scenario: A bad actor could infiltrate the hackers and influence them to do something on behalf of organized crime.
Mr. HUGH THOMPSON (Chief Executive, PeopleSecurity): Most of the folks who are on these chat boards don't know each other. They've never met in person. And so when someone has a dominant voice, you're not quite sure what their personal motivations are.
GJELTEN: That dominant player, for example, could get the hackers not simply to shut down a company's website but to leave it vulnerable to theft. Going after hackers or cyber-criminals is not easy because the Internet is such a good place to hide.
The FBI's Steven Chabinsky said yesterday's operation reflected what he calls good old-fashioned investigative work.
Mr. CHABINSKY: Getting out, trying to work with victims, finding out what they're seeing, finding out in the hacker community who knows someone that this just went too far, even for their views, they don't agree with it, and slowly but surely you end up getting the leads that result in the types of arrests we saw yesterday.
GJELTEN: The individuals rounded up yesterday may have been key players in the Anonymous hacking operation or maybe they were just careless in what they were doing. Hugh Thompson is not so sure.
Mr. THOMPSON: A lot of these people may have just been enamored by the cause, downloaded a tool, and some of them may have not even known that they were doing something illegal.
GJELTEN: Law enforcement officials point out that yesterday's operation was part of a continuing investigation. FBI agents also executed 35 search warrants and more arrests could follow.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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