How did Anonymous hack the FBI?

The latest, astonishing feat has put the internet hackers back in the public eye - and the authoriti

Source: Getty Images

In the last twelve months it has attacked government websites in Syria, declared cyber war on a brutal Mexican drug cartel, and exposed an anti-WikiLeaks "dirty tricks campaign" allegedly plotted by a prominent US security firm. But on Friday, Anonymous, a diffuse network of internet hackers, reached a new level when it intercepted and leaked a conference call between FBI agents and Scotland Yard detectives.

The astonishing feat - confirmed as genuine by the FBI - was apparently carried out after the hackers breached email accounts belonging to the authorities. In doing so, they were able to snoop on communications being exchanged between forces involved in a joint international anti-hacking operation across England, Ireland, Holland, France, Denmark, Sweden and America. In a piece of surreal real-life theatre, the tables were embarrassingly and dramatically turned. The investigators became the investigated; the watchers became the watched.

The call in question, which lasts around 16 minutes, is one of the boldest leaks ever produced by the hackers, and it may also be one of the most revelatory. A fascinating glimpse into a highly classified world, it shows the extent to which the Metropolitan police is willing to collaborate with its foreign counterparts as part of cyber-crime investigations, even if doing so means interfering with the British judicial process. At one point during the call, for instance, one of the Scotland Yard detectives tells his FBI colleagues that they secretly delayed an ongoing court case involving two UK-based suspected hackers - Jake Davis and Ryan Cleary - at America's behest.

"Following some discussion with the New York office, we're looking to try and build some time in to allow some operational matters to fulfil on your side of the water," the Scotland Yard detective is quoted as saying. "We've got the prosecution making an application in chambers, i.e. without the defence knowing, to seek a way to try and factor some time in, that won't look suspicious." He goes on: "Hey, we're here to help. We've cocked things up in the past, we know that."

The FBI has previously declined to comment on whether it would pursue extradition of Cleary or Davis, both of whom are facing a series of charges in Britain for their alleged involvement with Anonymous and its affiliated offshoot, LulzSec .

The call suggests, however, that the US could indeed be building its own case against the hackers. Davis in particular, who stands accused of being the audacious LulzSec spokesperson known online as "Topiary", would no doubt be wanted by the Americans. Over a two-month period in 2011, LulzSec perpetrated a series of high-profile attacks on the websites of US-based multi-national corporations and state agencies - including the CIA and the US senate - making it a prime target for cyber-crime investigators within the FBI.

Prior to the leaked call, it was clear that Davis's legal team already suspected US involvement on some level. This was made apparent last month, during a short hearing at Southwark Crown Court, when Gideon Cammerman, Davis's lawyer, expressed concern about outside interference, asking prosecutors that any "letters of request from a foreign jurisdiction" are presented to him when evidence is formally exchanged on 30 March, prior to Davis and Cleary entering pleas on 11 May. (A letter of request is a method used by a foreign court to seek judicial assistance, such as to obtain information or a witness statement from a specified person.)

Responding to concerns raised by Cammerman, a source within the Crown Prosecution Service said that they could not officially comment on the matter of foreign involvement until after 30 March, but stressed both prosecution and defence had a "common interest in the case being tried here [in the UK] effectively," hinting that any possible US extradition request could hinge on the outcome of the British trial.

In the meantime, the key question is whether Anonymous is sitting on more hacked information as explosive as the conference call, which, depending on its content, could have potentially massive repercussions.

To some extent, the authorities on both sides of the Atlantic have now been put on the back foot. Likely rattled and aghast that their own private conversations were hacked by the very hackers they are paid to investigate, they will be apprehensive about what could come next.

Cleary's lawyer, Karen Todner, has starkly warned that "whole cases could be blown apart" as a result of future security breaches; Anonymous, as ever, has promised more revelations are yet to come.

"You think we're done? Fuck no," tweeted one of its most prominent hackers, Sabu, on Friday. "Truth is we're still in the agents (sic) mailbox right now."

Ryan Gallagher is a freelance journalist based in London. His website is here

 

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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.