Cyberattacks fueled by ideological ire are likely to escalate this year and continue to bedevil corporations and governments, while putting innocent consumers at risk.
That follows a surge of so-called hacktivist attacks in 2011 instigated by the loose-knit Anonymous and LulzSec hacking groups, say security experts and technologists.
Hacktivists disrupted scores of websites, pilfered massive troves of data — and compared notes. "They are learning from each other," says Kris Harms principal consultant of network security firm Mandiant. "Corporations and governments need to recognize (more) break-ins are inevitable."
The unprecedented spike in politically motivated cyberintrusions was capped by Anonymous' breach of Strategic Forecasting's website over the holidays.
Anonymous demanded a gourmet Christmas dinner for Bradley Manning, the imprisoned U.S. Army soldier accused of leaking U.S. Embassy communiqués to the whistleblower website, WikiLeaks. It was a little more than a year ago when Anonymous temporarily crippled the websites of Visa, MasterCard, Paypal and others in retaliation for those companies refusing to process payments from WikiLeaks.
In the ongoing caper, hacktivists publicly posted credit card records for tens of thousands of the Austin-based online publication's subscribers, along with their e-mail addresses, phone numbers and encrypted passwords, according to data leakage prevention firm Identity Finder.
Stratfor.com, the company's website remains shut down but displays an apology alongside an offer for a year's worth of free ID theft protection insurance for subscribers. Clientele includes Apple, the U.S. Air Force and the Miami police department.
A prankster recently began sending bogus e-mails to Stratfor subscribers asking them to rate the company's response to the hack. The messages purport to come from Stratfor CEO George Friedman, says Chet Wisniewski, analyst at security firm Sophos.
"We're doing a thorough review of our website to ensure that it's secure when we do relaunch," says company spokesman Kyle Rhodes
By posting stolen information as proof of an attack, hacktivists make such data readily accessible, at no cost, to ID thieves, says Identity Finder CEO Todd Feinman. "Collateral damage to average consumers has become a very big problem."
"In-your-face arrogance, backed up by stunning success, made Anonymous and Lulzsec big news stories all year long," says Josh Shaul, chief technology officer at Application Security. "Recruits are lining up, and hackers are teaching classes to get more people in on the action."
Much like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, hacktivists seek to be heard, and eschew financial gain.
"In 2011, we saw organized crime groups using malware that was historically used by nation-state sponsored attack groups, and we've seen hacktivists using techniques more common to organized crime," says Mandiant's Harms.
Application Security's Shaul says the hacktivists' handiwork should serve as a wake up call. Organizations large and small "are having their networks breached and confidential data displayed for the world to see," Shaul says. The good news: "At least Anonymous is letting them know about the breach."
Michael Sutton, research vice president at security firm Zscaler, expects hacktivists to continue operating with near impunity. "We're not dealing with a structured entity where it is possible to cut the head off and slay the beast," he explains. "Each attack discussed in the media inspires another wave of hactivists."