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The mysterious hackers known as Anonymous says its members will take down the Internet tomorrow, or maybe they won't. No one really knows who speaks for Anonymous, and taking down the Internet is no easy feat.
Still, security experts are paying attention because, as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, Anonymous has shown it's capable of sophisticated cyber attacks.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: To the extent Anonymous has an identity, it's political - anti-government, anti-business, anti-power. But pro-technology. These folks live and do battle online.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hello, Citizen of World. We are Anonymous. The greatest enemy of freedom is a happy slave. To protest...
GJELTEN: Ironically, the latest Anonymous threat was aimed at the Internet itself.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: On March 31st, the Internet will go black.
GJELTEN: A digitized announcement released on the Web several weeks ago said the blackout plan was prompted in part by concerns about Internet censorship.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Remember, this is a protest. We are not trying to kill the Internet. We are only temporarily shutting it down where it hurts the most.
GJELTEN: But could hackers really take down the Internet? The apparent plan is to go after what's called the domain name servers. When you type in a website name, your computer has to query a domain name server to find the corresponding Internet address number. In theory, if the domain name servers get overloaded, they can't respond correctly.
RICHARD BEJTLICH: If they were able to gather a lot of digital firepower, direct a lot of bogus traffic at one part of the DNS infrastructure, you could have an effect.
GJELTEN: That's Richard Bejtlich, chief security officer at Mandiant, a computer security firm. But he says it's hypothetical. The effect would probably be limited and may not even be noticeable. Plus, Bejtlich points out, anytime there's a threat allegedly from Anonymous, you have to wonder if it's just people posing as Anonymous.
BEJTLICH: They declare that they're part of this group and then say that they going to do something serious to the Internet, or act out in some other way. That's what's kind of difficult about being a group that doesn't have any real membership or named leadership.
GJELTEN: In fact, one of the Twitter accounts associated with Anonymous today included several tweets denying any Internet blackout plan. What is this nonsense, said one. Stop asking us about it.
That won't stop cybersecurity experts from paying close attention to the Internet tomorrow. Anonymous and similar hacktivist groups are no longer a laughing matter. In the past, they got attention mostly for symbolic actions; temporarily taking down the CIA website, for example. But that's changing.
BRYAN SARTIN: Suddenly in this past year, hacktivism is on the map in a big way.
GJELTEN: Bryan Sartin is one of the authors of a massive study of computer data breaches released this month by Verizon. The headline: In 2011 cyber attacks by hacktivist groups accounted for the largest quantity of stolen or compromised records, far eclipsing what organized criminal groups managed to take.
Cyber intrusions by hacktivist groups are easy to distinguish, Sartin says, because the perpetrators are not motivated by a simple desire for financial gain.
SARTIN: Hacktivism is the place where you see the most complexity, the most innovation and the most ingenuity on the part of the perpetrators.
GJELTEN: The motivation, Sartin says, is to inflict damage on a brand or an institution.
The Internet probably will not be noticeably affected tomorrow. But no cybersecurity expert these days is underestimating the capability of groups like Anonymous to hurt what they really want to hurt.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.