What the Sabu revelation means for hackers

Everyone, no matter who they profess to be, is potentially an informant.

To most observers he seemed unpredictable, dangerous and so highly skilled that he could evade the long arm of the law. But in an astonishing revelation, last week it emerged that Sabu, the notorious figurehead of hacking group LulzSec, had for almost nine months been working secretly as an informant for the FBI.

The identity of 28-year-old Hector Xavier Monsegur, who led a rampage against government websites and multi-national corporations, had been uncovered when he failed to mask his computer's IP address using an internet chat room on just one fateful occasion.

Soon after, FBI agents appeared at the door of his apartment on the sixth floor of a 14-story housing project in Manhattan. The agents reportedly played "good cop bad cop", convincing the infamous hacker - almost immediately, according to court documents - that his only way out was to cooperate with an international investigation into his former comrades.

Monsegur, under his Sabu guise, proceeded to continue operating aggressively online - in some cases encouraging fellow hackers to commit crimes - all while under apparent instruction of the FBI.

Some suspected he had been "turned" - but the hacker world is rife with conspiracy theories and there was no hard evidence to prove it. "Sabu was identified, apprehended by the FBI and turned to an informant," one perceptive group wrote in November last year. Yet the claim never gained substantial traction.

From the perspective of the authorities, it was a tactical masterstroke. They had managed to flip the most notorious, the most feared, and the most accomplished of the LulzSec members. Due to his close ties and wide respect among hacker collective Anonymous and other splinter groups such as AntiSec, Sabu was a goldmine to the FBI. With his help, they were able to level charges against five accused hackers based in Britain, Ireland and America.

There are concerns, however, about how far the Bureau went to pursue its goals.

On 19 June, just 12 days after Sabu had been arrested, LulzSec, the group he commanded, issued a public call to arms. "Top priority is to steal and leak any classified government information, including email spools and documentation," it wrote in a manifesto.

Sabu was quick to proudly point out the manifesto to his 30,000 Twitter followers. "The biggest, unified operation amongst hackers in history," he wrote, possibly from an FBI computer. "All factions welcome. We are one."

Two months later, on 17 August, Sabu disappeared offline for 30 days. We now know that just two days prior, on 15 August, he had secretly pleaded guilty to twelve counts of hacking in a closed hearing at Southern District court, between Manhattan Bridge and Broadway, New York. When he returned, though he reportedly helped call off some attacks, he maintained a hostile front, claiming, "I wasn't owned, arrested, hacked or any of the other rumors [sic]."

In December, he encouraged an offensive against companies manufacturing surveillance technology; he called on hackers to target "with impunity" anyone supporting legislation that would restrict internet freedoms; and played what sources close to him say was a central role in hacking intelligence and security thinktank Stratfor. The attack on Stratfor resulted in 75,000 credit card numbers being posted online, with 5.5m of the thinktank's confidential emails subsequently passed to WikiLeaks.

This trend continued almost right up until 6 March, the day he was "outed" in an exclusive published by Fox News. As recently as two weeks ago Sabu had publicly instructed hackers to "infiltrate" international crime organisation Interpol and to "expose" arms companies. "Hack their servers," he tweeted on 28 February. "Scour their user email/passes. Grab mailspoolz. Grab docs... Leak. Rinse. Repeat."

Sabu's activities while working out of FBI offices, and then later his home under 24-hour surveillance, raise significant legal and ethical questions. Most notably: by encouraging people to commit crimes in such a brazen fashion, did he cross the thin line from informant to agent provocateur?

It has been suggested that the attack on Stratfor and the subsequent dealing with WikiLeaks was allowed - perhaps encouraged - by the FBI, not only to strengthen the US government's case against the hackers, but also to assist in the prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. (This does not seem beyond the realms of possibility, particularly given America's well-documented desire to prosecute Assange for his role in publishing US government secrets.)

It could have been the case, of course, that Sabu on occasion went "rogue" while under FBI direction. But given that he was the most notorious hacker in the world and having his every move monitored, it is doubtful the authorities would have let him out of their sight long enough for him to have the opportunity - repeatedly and over a period of several months - to incite others to commit criminal acts. What appears more likely is that the FBI decided, like the hackers, they too could play dirty.

These are issues that will no doubt be addressed In the months ahead, as the FBI's tactics fall under scrutiny in the courts and elsewhere. The impact of the Sabu revelation, meantime, has unsurprisingly reverberated like an atomic bomb within the Anonymous community.

"I feel for the ones who worked with him and who trusted him with leaks/data," one hacker told New Statesman. "They could never have known."

This sentiment is one shared across online chat rooms frequented by Anonymous, where there are varying degrees of anger, paranoia, fear and sadness.

For many, the large void left by Sabu will provide a defining moment of sobering reality. His silent Twitter page, once a ceaseless stream of anti-establishment rage, is now nothing but a ghostly relic - a symbolic reminder that in the shadowy virtual world hackers inhabit, no one is untouchable, and everyone, no matter who they profess to be, is potentially an informant.

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

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Tory right-wingers are furious about Big Ben – but it’s their time that’s running out

They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock.

Jeremy Corbyn, it is often said, wants to take Britain back to the 1970s.

The insult is halfway to an insight. It’s true that the Labour leader and his inner circle regard British economic policy since the late 1970s as an extended disaster that led to the election of Donald Trump and the vote to leave the European Union: a “failed experiment”, as Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s influential policy chief, puts it in his 2014 book of the same name.

The Labour leader views the 1970s not as a blighted decade waiting for a saviour, but as a time when trade unions still had teeth, privatisation was not treated as a panacea and inequality was lower.

Theresa May doesn’t see the past four decades in quite the same light, but she does believe that the Brexit vote was, in part, the destabilising consequence of an economic settlement that has left too many people in Britain without a stake in society. This means, for now at least, an ideology that was until recently a consensus has no defenders at the top of either party.

May’s successor might conceivably be an unrepentant cheerleader for free markets and the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism, but as things stand, whoever replaces May faces an uphill battle to be anything other than a brief pause before Corbyn takes over. Because of the sputtering British economy and the prospect of a severe downturn after Brexit – coupled with the Labour leader’s rising personal ratings – it is the opposition that has momentum on its side, in both senses of the word.

All of which might, you would expect, trigger panic among members of the Conservative right. Neoliberalism is their experiment, after all, the great legacy of their beloved Margaret Thatcher. Yet while there are a few ministers and backbenchers, particularly from the 2010 intake, who grasp the scale of the threat that Corbynism poses to their favoured form of capitalism, they are outnumbered by the unaware.

For the most part, the average Tory believes, in essence, that the 2017 election was a blip and that the same approach with a more persuasive centre-forward will restore the Conservative majority and put Corbyn back in his box next time round. There are some MPs who are angry that Nick Timothy, May’s former aide, has waltzed straight from the 2017 disaster to a column in the Daily Telegraph. That the column is titled “Ideas to Win” only adds to the rage. But most generally agree with his diagnosis that the party will do better at the next election than at the last, almost by default.

And it’s not that the Conservative right isn’t panicked by anything, as a result of some state of advanced Zen calm: many are exercised by the silence of Big Ben during its scheduled four years of repairs.

Yet you don’t even have to go as far back as 1970 for a period of silence from Elizabeth Tower. The bongs stopped ringing for planned maintenance in 2007 and for two years from 1983 to 1985, and the Great Clock stopped unexpectedly in 1976. What distinguishes this period of renovation from its predecessors is not its length but the hysteria it has generated, among both the right-wing press and the Conservative right. The Brexit Secretary, David Davis, described letting the bells go quiet as “mad”, while James Gray, a Conservative backbencher, went further, dubbing the repairs “bonkers”.

The reason why the bongs must be stilled is that they risk deafening and endangering the workers repairing the bell. Working around them would further extend the maintenance period, potentially silencing the clock for ever. The real divide isn’t between people who are happy for the bell to fall silent and those who want to keep it ringing, but between politicians who want to repair and preserve the bell and those who risk its future by squabbling over a four-year silence. There may well be “mad” behaviour on display, but it certainly isn’t coming from the repairmen.

The row is a microcosm of the wider battle over parliament’s renovation. The estate badly needs urgent repairs to make it fire-safe and vermin-free – in the past year, the authorities have had to spend in excess of £100,000 on pest control, with bed bugs the latest pest to make a home at Westminster. If it isn’t made safe, it could burn down.

The cheapest and most secure option for MPs is to decamp down the road to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, just a few minutes’ walk from parliament. But the current delay, facilitated by Theresa May, increases the cost of repairs. The Prime Minister has also weighed in on the row over Big Ben, telling reporters that it “cannot be right” for the bell to go quiet. Westminster’s traditionalists, largely drawn from the Conservative right, talk up the importance of preserving the institution but their foot-dragging endangers the institution they want to protect. As for May, her interventions in both cases speak to one of her biggest flaws: while she is not an idiot, she is altogether too willing to say idiotic things in order to pander to her party’s rightmost flank. That same deference to the Tory right caused her to shred or water down her attempts to rejig the British economic model, ceding that ground to Corbyn.

A Labour victory at the next election isn’t written in stone. The winds blowing in the opposition’s favour are all very much in the control of the government. The Conservatives could embark on a programme of extensive housebuilding, or step in to get wages growing again or to turn around Britain’s low productivity. Philip Hammond could use his next Budget to ease the cuts to public spending. They could, in short, either declare that the experiment hasn’t failed and vigorously defend it, or write off their old project and create another one. They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock, oblivious to the reality that their time is running out. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia