Feds stumbling after Anonymous launches 'Operation Last Resort'

Summary:The U.S. Department of Justice still has two Federal websites down since Friday when Anonymous launched 'Operation Last Resort' demanding legal reform.

The U.S. Department of Justice still has egg on its face after hacktivist group Anonymous launched 'Operation Last Resort' commandeering Federal websites, threatening to release government information, and demanding legal reform.

Late evening Friday, January 25, U.S. Sentencing Commission website was hacked and government files distributed by Anonymous in what the group calls "Operation Last Resort" in response to the recent, tragic suicide of hacktivist Aaron Swartz.

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The feds wrestled all weekend with Anonymous to try and regain control of the website.

Anonymous had the last laugh Sunday afternoon as they whimsically transformed the .gov site into an interactive video game of "Asteroids."

Friday: ussc.gov launch of Operation Last Resort

Anonymous first hacked ussc.gov Friday afternoon, but only momentarily with control going back to the feds.

Later that night, Anonymous fully commandeered the website and made demands in a massive show of force.

The group stated it had infiltrated multiple federal websites over a period of time, and dropped enough technical details to make it clear that its tracks were covered and that it still had access to .gov websites:

Through this websites and various others that will remain unnamed, we have been conducting our own infiltration. We did not restrict ourselves like the FBI to one high-profile compromise. We are far more ambitious, and far more capable. Over the last two weeks we have wound down this operation, removed all traces of leakware from the compromised systems, and taken down the injection apparatus used to detect and exploit vulnerable machines.

Anonymous placed links to encrypted files mirrored on multiple websites on the ussc.gov page.

Anonymous Tweeted that the group left a backdoor and made it editable in a way that encourages other hackers to come and shell the server.

This effectively made the federal site into a file distribution hub. The group stated it was launching its new campaign "Operation Last Resort" with an accompanying video.

Anonymous threatened to release decryption keys for the secret files - named after Supreme Court Justices - if the U.S. government did not enact legal reform to computer crime laws. The group stated it did not want to negotiate.

As the basis for its Operation Last Resort, Anonymous cited the recent suicide of hacktivist Aaron Swartz as a "line that has been crossed."

Anonymous' statement states the campaign is retaliation for Swartz's tragic suicide, which many - including Swartz family - believe was a result of overzealous prosecution by the Department of Justice and what the family deemed a "bullying" use of outdated computer crime laws.

The feds responded to the Friday night hack by wiping ussc.gov offline.

The FBI's Richard McFeely, executive assistant director of the Criminal, Cyber, Response, and Services Branch, told Bloomberg:

We were aware as soon as it happened and are handling it as a criminal investigation. We are always concerned when someone illegally accesses another person's or government agency's network.

The website stayed offline for most of Saturday and returned by early evening.

Saturday ussc.gov offline; Sunday a game of Asteroids 

It seemed like order had been restored and the website appeared as it was before.

On Sunday around noon PST, Anonymous quietly - and somewhat whimsically - changed the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s website into a playable game of Asteroids.

When visitors went to ussc.gov, the website appeared as normal. However, on various social media outlets, accounts claiming allegiance with Anonymous published "Konami" code, a series of keystrokes with which any visitor to the site could use to turn their keyboard into video game controls.

Shooting the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s website text caused the original image of the site to slowly shrink, revealing a dark Anonymous face (the iconic "Guy Fawkes" mask).

News of the hack spread like a match to gasoline across internet forums and news websites, and by early Sunday afternoon the website began to stall and time out under the onslaught of traffic.

In response, Anonymous displayed its access - as suggested in the first defacement of ussc.gov - and posted social messages that the U.S. Sentencing Commission Asteroids game could be played on another government website Anonymous had commandeered (miep.uscourts.gov).

Monday offline, while House panel demands answers

Questions are now being raised on the dot-gov side of the 'operation.'

Monday, a House panel issued a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder with seven specific questions, and demanding answers regarding the Swartz prosecution.

With the letter to Holder, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee requests a briefing with the Justice Department. CNET writes,

"Many questions have been raised about the appropriate level of punishment sought by prosecutors for Mr. Swartz's alleged offenses, and how the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, cited in 11 of 13 counts against Mr. Swartz, should apply under similar circumstances," [Reps. Issa and Cummings] say in the letter, which requests a briefing no later than February 4.

The letter is another voice from the Federal side of the discussion, joining a chorus led by Democratic congresswoman Rep. Zoe Lofgren who has authored a bill called "Aaron's Law" that aims to change the 1984 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (with which Swartz was being prosecuted).

It remains to be seen whether the actions of Anonymous have influenced federal action.

Wednesday: ussc.gov, miep.uscourts.gov still offline

Tuesday, both .gov websites remained offline - while fbi.gov was briefly knocked offline and claimed by Anonymous.

On Wednesday, six days after Anonymous took ussc.gov, the website remains offline.

At the same time, the encrypted files distributed in the Friday ussc.gov hack are still out there, with Anonymous holding the keys - to whatever they are (or are not).

The Operation Last Resort video, posted Friday on the U.S. Sentencing Commission website now has 1,100,000 views.

We'll update Zero Day with news about Operation Last Resort as it happens.

Topics: Security, Government : US, Legal

About

Ms. Violet Blue (tinynibbles.com, @violetblue) is a freelance investigative reporter on hacking and cybercrime at Zero Day/ZDNet, CNET and CBS News, as well as a noted sex columnist. She has made regular appearances on CNN and The Oprah Winfrey Show and is regularly interviewed, quoted, and featured in a variety of publications that inclu... Full Bio

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