LOS ANGELES – In what it said was the largest sweep of Internet “hactivists” in the U.S., the FBI arrested 14 alleged members of hacker group Anonymous, which last fall took responsibility for knocking out the websites of several large companies.
The 14 people arrested may be the first alleged members of Anonymous to be arrested by the FBI, said a law enforcement official not authorized to speak on the matter. The arrests were made in nine states and the District of Columbia.
The raids may also mark the first time that federal agents arrested individuals for cyber crimes that may have been committed as a form of political protest.
The arrests came as a result of a distributed denial of service attack – when attackers try to jam a company’s website by getting large numbers of computers to contact it at the same time – on PayPal Inc. late last year, federal officials said. Anonymous claimed to have attacked PayPal and other companies including Visa Inc., MasterCard Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. in December as part of “Operation Avenge Assange.” The attacks were launched after the companies suspended the accounts of whistleblower organization WikiLeaks after it began releasing classified information to the public.
The recent arrests are unusual because cyber protesting, a niche segment of cyber crime, is a relatively new phenomenon, said Stan Stahl, president of the Los Angeles chapter of trade group Information Systems Security Association.
But law enforcement agencies tend to target hackers based on the amount of financial havoc wreaked or their potential risk to national security, Stahl said. When Anonymous hacked huge corporations such as Visa or government entities such as the Spanish police, they pretty much guaranteed law enforcement scrutiny and action, Stahl said.