Businesses are not taking Anonymous and hacktivism seriously enough, according to an FBI special agent.
The youth of alleged Anonymous hackers, who are often teenagers or in their early twenties, has lead a number of businesses to dismiss the hacking group without taking into account the ramifications of a successful hack, FBI cyber-investigator Eric Strom told the RSA Conference 2012 in San Francisco on Wednesday.
"[Businesses] are taking it too lightly," said Strom. "A lot of people think it's a bunch of kids goofing around. In reality it's not, [hacktivism] can destroy a business."
eCrime Police in the UK have been working with the FBI and international law enforcement to round up suspected 'hacktivists' — people who engage in hacking for some claimed ideological end, rather than for monetary gain. Several UK teenagers and young adults were arrested in a series of raids in 2011, including teenagers Ryan Cleary and Jake Davis, and Hartlepool student Peter David Gibson.
Some businesses and public sector organisations reputations have been damaged by Anonymous exposure of information. For example, law firm ACS-Law, which disastrously accused thousands of people of illegal file-sharing, went out of business after details of people who had allegedly illegally accessed pornography were exposed during an Anonymous hack. ACS-Law was later fined £1000 by the Information Commissioner's Office for the exposure of personal information.
The Police Central eCrime Unit at Scotland Yard, and the FBI itself, were hacked by alleged Anonymous and Lulzsec group members, who posted a recording of a telephone conversation discussing Anonymous and Lulzsec investigations. The FBI later acknowledged that the recording was bona fide.
Some people who are involved in Anonymous are minors, and so are risking lighter punishments by participating in hacking attacks, said Strom.
"There are a number of challenges involved in this, from the age that a number of people who are involved in this, to the fact of how do you define the movement's goals," said Strom.
Anonymous is an amorphous group whose goals reflected its differing membership, said academic and journalist Mischa Glenny, who was appearing in a panel discussion with Strom.
"It's worth remembering that hacktivism does have a political background," said Glenny."Although in groups like Anonymous you'll find all sorts of characters."
Glenny said that the group claimed to be political idealists, but that in certain cases those idealists had been 'hijacked' by criminal elements for their own ends. Glenny gave the example of a Greek investigative journalist who specialised in looking into organised crime who had been beaten at a demonstration after being demonised by Anonymous.
"We have a real problem here in trying to identify what is genuine idealism, what is criminality, what is a sort of anarchic attitude to the internet, and what is a cover for piracy and other intellectual copyright issues," said Glenny.
ZDNet UK understands that certain investigators looking at Anonymous believe that some attacks claimed by the organisation have been state-sponsored.