How did Anonymous hack the FBI?

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

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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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage