When Anonymous attacked HBGary Federal back in January, it set off a chain of events that has spawned widespread fascination, fear, anger and some paranoia among the security industry, government, law firms, Congress and even Anonymous itself.
The loosely strung collective gained its largest notoriety last year when it leapt to the defense of Wikileaks by attacking Web pages of businesses that helped break access to Wikileaks servers that hosted diplomatic cables stolen from the U.S. State Department.
But sustained interest in the group stems from its theft and publication by Anonymous of 71,800 emails from HBGary in retaliation for its CEO's plan to expose the names of Anonymous members.
The latest fallout is a call by U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) for Congress to investigate security firms Palantir Technologies and Berico Technologies both of which hold government contracts. Both were also mentioned in the HBGary emails as part of schemes to discredit Wikileaks, Salon writer Glenn Greenwald and opponents of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce including unions. "I think the investigation should proceed as far as the facts take us," says Johnson in an interview with forbes.com.
So far he's asked the Pentagon to supply copies of contracts it has with the firms, and it's not clear that the Pentagon will have to comply.
As for Anonymous, Johnson says he thinks the Internet needs laws to address activities like the HBGary email theft. "I think we have embarked into a lawless environment with our cyber capabilities now," he says, "and we really need to see what kind of laws are lacking and what laws need to be strengthened to punish any misconduct in cyber space."
Interestingly, he seems aligned with Anonymous in wanting to get to the bottom of some information that came out of the HBGary emails that showed that U.S. Central Command - the Pentagon group running the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - put out a bid for software that can create and manage multiple social network personalities. Central command says it's to counter violent extremist ideology and enemy propaganda and will be used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But both Anonymous and Johnson are worried what uses the software might be put to. Anonymous has launched what it calls Operation Metal Gear to investigate what the software does and why it's being developed. "We believe that Metal Gear [the Anonymous code name for the software] involves an army of fake cyber personalities immersed in social networking websites for the purposes of manipulating the mass population via influence, crawling information from major online communities (such as Facebook), and identifying anonymous personalities via correlating stored information from multiple sources to establish connections between separate online accounts, using this information to arrest dissidents and activists who work anonymously."
Since Anonymous claims responsibility for helping disrupt government Web sites in Egypt and other countries to lend support to uprisings, it falls into the category of those who might be arrested.
Johnson makes a connection between the plans to discredit individuals and organizations and the Metal Gear software for which Central Command put out the bid. "When those contractors using that kind of technology, developed pursuant to government contract and utilizing American tax payer dollars, then turn the tools into domestic surveillance and marketing to business organizations, with the goal of discrediting and disrupting and actually destroying organizations that disagree with their clients, doing that domestically is like turning spying tools on the very people who paid for them," Johnson says to forbes.com.
"You should not use tools developed to get at foreign terrorist agents on American citizens who are choosing to exercise their First Amendment rights."
Meanwhile Anonymous allowed journalist Matthew Keys access to one of its chat rooms to participate in conversations among what he describes as top-level Anonymous hackers. He says he kept logs but hasn't decided what to do with them yet.
But two Anonymous members who became disenchanted with the group for its use of teenagers to help execute its activities have taken action against their former colleagues. They formed an entity called Backtrace Security and set up a Web site where they posted chat logs in which Anonymous members discussed the HBGary email theft. The site backtracesecurity.com worked earlier this week, but now redirects to a forbes.com story that describes the mutual outing going on between Backtrace and Anonymous.
Anonymous posted the names of people it claims make up Backtrace.
Even as the distractions mount, Anonymous has announced another initiative - overturning the government of South Africa, which it says is siphoning off the wealth of the country. A Youtube video featuring a grinning theatrical mask that has been associated with the group is on screen while an electronically altered voice reads a list of the government's shortcomings. "Take to the streets. Take back your country," the voice says. Letters on the screen read, "In 2011 we the people are taking our country back. You will experience the will of the people."