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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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.