Pizzas, Faxes And Robot Networks : Planet Money Today on the podcast, we talk to some close observers of the hacker group Anonymous to find out how they operate and what they want.
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Pizzas, Faxes And Robot Networks

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Pizzas, Faxes And Robot Networks

Pizzas, Faxes And Robot Networks

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(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: We are legion, for we are many. But do not mistake who we are for what we are and what we can do. Anonymous will fight. Anonymous will win. Knowledge is free. We cannot be stopped. We expect results.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALPINES' "COCOON")

ZOE CHACE, HOST:

Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. Today is Tuesday, August 23. That was a video posted by the hacker group Anonymous you heard at the top. I'm Zoe Chace.

DAVID KESTENBAUM, HOST:

And I'm David Kestenbaum. Today on the podcast, we look inside Anonymous. Anonymous has claimed responsibility for computer attacks on some pretty major international companies, also governments. That video was posted after an attack on the Church of Scientology. We look at how this secret operation runs and why it has been so hard to shut down.

CHACE: But first, the PLANET MONEY indicator. Jacob Goldstein is away, so we're going to hear from the ever-buoyant Robert Anthony Smith.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: Today's PLANET MONEY indicator is 280 million. Two hundred and eighty million euros is the estimated amount of collateral in cash that Finland is demanding before it lends any money to Greece as part of a European bailout. So Finland's basically saying, give us this huge chunk of cash that we'll invest and then we will loan you, Greece, 1.4 billion euros.

KESTENBAUM: But the whole problem is that Greece doesn't have any money, right?

SMITH: And Finland knows that. It essentially comes down to the fact that Finland doesn't trust Greece. And Finland banks don't have a lot of Greek debt. Finland's triple-A rated. It's well-run. And they figure, listen, before we give money to - I'll say it - these losers down south, we want something that will make us whole. So they figure if they can get 280 million euros out of Greece, they can invest that, and then after 30 years, they can basically make money on the bailout.

KESTENBAUM: Robert, this is a real mess because if Finland doesn't vote for this and Europe can't approve a second bailout for Greece, that could be a disaster for the euro.

SMITH: And it's already hurting what little confidence remained in the eurozone. I mean, Moody's, the rating agency - just in the last couple days said that, look, if everybody wants collateral for their loans then obviously this bailout is going to take much longer than necessary. And Greece, we may downgrade them again, or they may default in the short term. There's just a lot of things that can go wrong. And Greece is desperate for this money.

So basically, the 17 member countries have to get it together and figure out, what are the side deals they're going to allow? And Finland's saying, listen, if we don't get it, we're going to walk out. And the Netherlands are saying, we may veto it if Finland does get the deal. So the usual chaos, at least for a few more months.

KESTENBAUM: Thank you very much.

CHACE: Thanks, Robert.

SMITH: Thanks, guys.

KESTENBAUM: All right. On to hacking and this group called Anonymous. If you read newspaper stories about websites being taken down by hackers, you'll sometimes read that this mysterious group called Anonymous has taken credit for it.

CHACE: Right. So let's run through a couple highlights. Their signature move is to send massive amounts of traffic to a website which basically shuts a site down. And it's a total wild variety of targets. Like, they shut down the Church of Scientology's website for about two weeks, government sites of Iran, Egypt and Tunisia.

KESTENBAUM: A couple police department websites shut down...

CHACE: Yeah.

KESTENBAUM: ...In the United States.

CHACE: That's exactly right. And then almost a year ago, PayPal's site was hit the same way after they stopped processing donations to WikiLeaks. And that made some of the Anonymous folks angry. Sony's site got hit. And MasterCard and Visa went down for a few hours. It's a bunch of things.

KESTENBAUM: So, Zoe, you went to Las Vegas to try and track down some members of Anonymous.

CHACE: Yes. I went to Vegas for this computer hacker conference looking for Anonymous. I wanted to find out how and why they attacked these companies. But as you might expect, finding members of a group called Anonymous is not easy.

KESTENBAUM: They don't have little name tags?

CHACE: There's no booth, you know, at a conference for the Anonymous people. But I did find some people who seemed to know a lot about how they operate. I found them at an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet.

MERCEDES HAEFER: You're going to see me go through, like, 20 plates because I just do all my food in, like, one day and then I'm good for the week. I'm like a snake.

CHACE: This is Mercedes Haefer (ph). She's got a purple ponytail and this sweet little face. It's the filthiest mouth I've ever heard.

HAEFER: It's covered in some sauce that's probably, like, sea sperm or some [expletive]. It tastes delicious.

CHACE: Can you watch your mouth?

She's 20. And she took pains to describe herself as a close observer of Anonymous. But even she couldn't give me the most basic fact I wanted to know about the organization.

HAEFER: No one knows how many Anons there are because it's not like there's a census where everyone puts in their nickname and says, I'm an Anon and then, you know, we count them all. It's just like people join and people go. And something big will happen and people will join, and then that big thing's over and they leave and they never come back. But they were in Anon for that moment.

CHACE: And when people are online, they use aliases, right? So Mercedes goes by the names No (ph) and Mmmm (ph).

KESTENBAUM: Mmmm?

CHACE: Mmm hmm.

KESTENBAUM: I like M? Like, M, M, M - how many M's?

CHACE: Like four M's - Mmmm.

KESTENBAUM: OK. So this group that is taking down the websites of international companies - sounds like it skews pretty young, right? There are no rules. No one seems to know who anyone else is in it. How do they get anything done?

CHACE: OK, I'm going to show you. So let me just walk you through how Anonymous gets organized and attacks a company. And it starts in this little universe on the Internet called the IRC.

KESTENBAUM: Which is like a chat room or something, right?

CHACE: Yeah. Just a very, very big chat room where people can type back and forth to each other. And I will take you now to the secret chat room where Anonymous plans its operations.

KESTENBAUM: All right.

CHACE: All right, let's go right here, right now. Ready?

KESTENBAUM: Really? You can do this?

CHACE: Dude. Wait till you see what a big secret it is. OK, so now why don't you read off the welcome screen to this secret chat room site?

KESTENBAUM: Welcome to Mibbit. Choose a nickname and channel to start chatting. If you don't know where you're going, try a search.

CHACE: Let's go to AnonOps.

KESTENBAUM: Wait. For like Anonymous? Like, Anonymous Operations group?

CHACE: Anonymous Operations. That's where we're going. That's where you want to go, right?

KESTENBAUM: That's there on the pull-down menu? It's there, like, as a pre-selected option, a place you might want to go?

CHACE: Exactly. It's a very popular place right...

KESTENBAUM: Now we have to type in a super-secret password.

CHACE: Nope, I don't see that. I'm just going to click connect if that's OK with you.

KESTENBAUM: All right.

CHACE: And we are here.

KESTENBAUM: We're in the secret chat room where Anonymous plans its operations?

CHACE: Yes. There's a bunch of other people in the room.

KESTENBAUM: Mad Dog (ph), Nerdo (ph) - oh, I should've taken Nerdo. Someone writes, are you against Facebook or against the CIA? People choose to be on Facebook and the terms say what it does with your data, but if people just can't be bothered to read it then it's not Facebook's problem basically.

CHACE: I don't understand what the F you are talking about. Seriously, these kids look like they're debating whether or not Facebook should be attacked.

KESTENBAUM: This is where all that gets hashed out.

CHACE: Yeah.

KESTENBAUM: Who are we really angry at? Who can we agree we should attack?

CHACE: This is where the conversation begins. And then once a decision is made the conversation goes somewhere a little bit more private.

KESTENBAUM: So this is the little universe where the plots are actually plotted.

CHACE: Yeah. Mercedes says it's pretty informal. There can be up to 600 people in there just talking in one chat room or channel.

HAEFER: Someone walks into the channel and says, oi (ph), mate, let's pick targets today. People shout targets. They say, oh, this happened recently and this happened recently and this happened recently. And it just gets added to the vote.

KESTENBAUM: Is that a fake accent there?

CHACE: Yeah. She just picks whatever accent she feels like at that moment.

KESTENBAUM: OK, so I've learned something. There's a vote. I assume it's like any online poll. But instead of asking like, which band do you think is better, which celebrity is hotter, they're saying, what crime should we do?

CHACE: That's exactly right. But here's the problem - when you're talking about Anonymous it's very hard to pin down even the most simple details of an operation. So Mercedes was very specific. She says the vote lasts for at least 24 hours so people in every time zone can take part. But then I sat down with another observer of Anonymous, Rob Field (ph). He's 23. He runs an online hacking school. And I asked him about the vote.

Is there a vote?

ROB FIELD: No. No, like, seriously, there's no vote. That's retarded.

CHACE: The way Rob explains it, you don't need to vote. If you have an idea you just go into the chat room and you say, who's with me?

FIELD: And people will be, like, yeah, yeah, yeah, no, I hate company X. I hate company X, right? They charged me too much on my phone bill last month. Whatever, you know? And from there, like - I mean, you know, it can kind of grow on its own.

CHACE: When do you know that the conversation has landed on, like, this is what we're going to do and it's not like people speculating anymore or coming up with ideas?

FIELD: It's about verbiage. No, it's exactly what it is. It's about verbiage. Oh, no, it'd be cool if we - OK, so we're going to blank.

KESTENBAUM: Basically he's saying the conversation changes tense from how about we do this to we are doing this.

CHACE: Right. So one way or another these guys pick a target. So you have, say, operation MasterCard. But then they need to decide what kind of attack they're going to do.

HAEFER: People will say, let's send them faxes. And people will say, let's call their house or let's send them pizzas or...

KESTENBAUM: Pizza?

CHACE: Yeah, the Church of Scientology got a lot of pizzas they didn't order. The faxing thing is kind of clever. Here's Jake McDermott (ph), another observer of Anonymous.

JAKE MCDERMOTT: You fax a black sheet of paper because it eats more toner and generates more heat on the receiving fax end.

HAEFER: Sometimes they burn. Sometimes they light on fire.

KESTENBAUM: Zoe, these sound like pranks, not the sort of stuff the FBI would necessarily spend a lot of time on.

CHACE: Right. So if Anonymous had sent Sony a bunch of pizzas and faxes it wouldn't have made the news. But Anonymous shut down Sony's website, and that grabs headlines. And that's the main thing they actually do. They shut down big websites.

KESTENBAUM: If you think about that, it's sort of a hard thing to do. I mean, these are big websites. They are designed to handle lots and lots of traffic.

CHACE: Yeah, but there's a limit. So if a billion people try to access a single website it will shut it down. And that's what Anonymous does. They overwhelm a website with traffic as if a whole bunch of people were trying to use the site.

KESTENBAUM: Zoe, I've covered hackers for a while. There is a well-established way to do this in the hacker world. Remember, it would be very hard to organize a billion people to all go to the Sony website at once, especially given the organizational structure of Anonymous as you laid it out.

CHACE: Right.

KESTENBAUM: So what you need is a sleeping army of computers that can do your bidding for you. And there is a name for this sleeping army of computers. It is called a botnet, as in robot network.

CHACE: When I first heard about botnets I pictured an abandoned building in Russia somewhere or something just filled with computers top to bottom, all just waiting with their cursors blinking. But it's not like that at all. I mean, these computers are all over the world.

KESTENBAUM: In fact, Zoe, this computer right here...

(SOUNDBITE OF KEYBOARD CLACKING)

KESTENBAUM: ...It could be part of a sleeping botnet army. That's - I mean, you know, sometimes your computer gets infected by some malware program. Sometimes what those are doing are making your computer like a zombie, part of this network. I'm sure that IT folks at NPR would tell us this computer is clean, but you never know what it's doing.

CHACE: So if I'm in Anonymous and I want to do this kind of attack, I need to talk to someone who controls one of these armies of computers, one of these botnets. Rob Field, the guy who runs the hacker school, says there's really only one place to go to rent one of these armies. It's called the RBN for Russian Business Network.

KESTENBAUM: So you were right. Russia is involved in this.

CHACE: Cybercrime Russia is never far away.

KESTENBAUM: It's - RBN sounds, like, superficial and also sort of super sketchy.

CHACE: Yeah. It probably could be both, right?

FIELD: Those dudes sell everything. Like, literally everything. You want a mail order bride, a botnet, some cocaine, some heroin and you want a cheeseburger? Go see those guys.

CHACE: Remember, we spent some time in the black market for stolen credit cards at the beginning of the summer. And we described it like the photo negative version of eBay or Craigslist just to sell illegal stuff online. The Russian Business Network is like that.

KESTENBAUM: And how much - what's the going rate for a botnet these days?

CHACE: It's about two bucks per machine according to some, which to me actually sounds cheap for gaining control of someone's computer. But remember, Field says you need a lot of compromised computers to run a really good botnet.

FIELD: It adds up, too, to get that much - to get that much actual power. About five, 10 G. Five, 10 G.

CHACE: Five to $10,000 can buy you a decent botnet?

FIELD: Yeah, five to 10 G can get you some decent, decent power.

KESTENBAUM: So where do the people in Anonymous get the money for - they don't strike me as people who have $10,000 to throw around.

CHACE: Right. Well, a lot of people just chip in money because they believe in the cause. Or they have other methods.

FIELD: People do what they do in order to get things done (laughter).

CHACE: Like use a fraudulent credit card.

FIELD: Theoretically (laughter).

CHACE: This past year, instead of paying for a botnet a lot of people actually volunteered their own computers. And that didn't work out so well. The FBI caught up with some of them. In fact, the woman you heard at the beginning, Mercedes Haefer, the FBI arrested her. And they charged her with using that kind of a botnet.

KESTENBAUM: So you showed me the indictment. And it says Mercedes - has her name, Mercedes - and says aka No and Mmmm. And, Zoe, it struck me looking at that this is very different from those credit card thieves you talked about in that other podcast. These are not really professional criminals. This is not a for-profit venture. It's not about money. Actually, what did they say it is about?

CHACE: Well, like everything else with Anonymous, you get very different answers depending on who you talk to. And I asked a group of these observers and a fight broke out. You know, it's about free speech. It's about freedom of information. No, it's just human rights in general. And I would say if you have to pick a common thread, it's just Internet freedom. Almost all their actions are Internet-related.

Like Egypt's government shuts down the Internet, Anonymous attacks them. Sony prosecutes some guy who broke the PlayStation, Anonymous attacks them. PayPal refuses to process donations to WikiLeaks and they get attacked. And this is the tagline for Anonymous. It's pretty vague. But we are Anonymous. We are legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. And I'm just going to give the last word here to Rob Field. I asked him what Anonymous stood for. This is what he said.

FIELD: You know, what's the motivation behind it? Motivation is what you make it. Because everybody thinks, oh, Anonymous, WikiLeaks. Anonymous, you know, liberal douchebags. Anonymous, Republican haters. Anonymous, this that the other, you know? Like, I mean, I'm Republican. I'm conservative as all get-out. But, like, you know - like, I mean, if - let's say for instance you want to join Anonymous. And you say, I want to join Anonymous because of the fact that I agree with one of these things that they're doing. OK. You're anonymous, right? That's - like, that's it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COCOON")

ALPINES: (Singing) More than I think you do.

CHACE: As always, let us know what you think. Email us at planetmoney@npr.org or find us on Facebook or Twitter. But please, all you billion listeners, don't come to our blog at once.

KESTENBAUM: I'm David Kestenbaum.

CHACE: I'm Zoe Chace. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COCOON")

APLINES: (Singing) Have I been chasing shadows? Show me the light. Are we on different pages? Am I reading this right? Wrap me up in this cocoon.

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