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6/21/2011
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LulzSec, Anonymous: Feds Most Wanted

While the hacker groups have drawn attention with public boasts, federal investigators have set up shop in numerous social media sites, going undercover where necessary to root cyber criminals.

Inside DHS' Classified Cyber-Coordination Headquarters
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Slideshow: Inside DHS' Classified Cyber-Coordination Headquarters
Hey LulzSec, the feds are coming for you.

That's the unspoken response the hacker group faces after threatening via Twitter to "unleash fire on multiple targets." Scotland Yard indicated that Monday night's arrest of a British teenager on suspicion of computer offenses in association with cyber attacks against government agencies and multinational companies was the result of a joint investigation with the FBI.

The BBC, citing sources in England, identified the 19-year-old as Ryan Cleary. Initial news reports suggested that Cleary may have been a LulzSec leader, and Twitter feeds attributed to LulzSec and another hacking group, Anonymous, identified him as a network administrator for a few hacking sites and host of an IRC chatroom where the groups' hackers congregated online. LulzSec denied that Cleary was a key player, referring to him as being "mildly associated with us."

U.S. law enforcement officials aren't providing details on the investigation. The FBI declined comment. DHS said it wasn't involved. And the National Security Agency didn't return our call. But it's clear that the same online platforms that serve as the primary channel of operations for LulzSec and groups like it can be a double-edged sword. Their secrets are sometimes exposed on the Web, and the feds are surely monitoring them with all the tools at their disposal.

"There's no way you're going to continue to get away with this stuff," said Chester Wisneiwski, senior security advisor at Sophos. "This perception of anonymity that these guys have, as soon as the chips start to fall, your contact details are out there because either you crossed them, or they start flipping on one another when they get arrested."

Cleary may have "crossed" Anonymous, for example, and gotten burned as a result--public infighting may have been a factor in his arrest. Online posters associated with Anonymous in May accused Cleary of stealing passwords from and revealing private details on Anonymous members, and revealed his name, email, physical address, phone number, family members' names, and other information online.

A website called LulzSec Exposed has released numerous private chat logs from the group, and says it has personal details on certain hackers and claims to be cooperating with the FBI and international law enforcement organizations. Other details on alleged LulzSec members have been leaked on sites like Pastebin, which allows anonymous posting of text.

Wisneiwski points to the case of Operation Sundown, a series of raids against hackers 20 years ago, where arrests targeted a few individuals, but turncoat confessions led to the arrests of others.

LulzSec and Anonymous have taken on very public faces since their emergence. An individual associated with Anonymous who goes by the handle Topiary appeared on a syndicated radio show and hacked into the Westboro Baptist Church's website on air. Another, who goes by Kayla, spoke with Forbes, while yet another, a Boston man named Gregg Housh, revealed himself in interviews with CNN, Vanity Fair, and others.

The groups have made no secret of their attacks on targets ranging from the Church of Scientology and the Sony PlayStation Network to the CIA and the United Kingdom's Serious Organized Crime Agency, but that has had the effect both of raising the profile of the groups and raising law enforcement's ire. The FBI, Pentagon, and international law enforcement have all been reported to be probing the organizations.

International law enforcement and private companies are increasingly working together to track down cyber crime. The Financial Services Information Sharing and Analysis Center (FS-ISAC) allows banks to work with law enforcement agencies on cyber threats. And Homeland Security's National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center, which opened in 2009, brings together federal agencies and private companies to monitor security threats. The increased cooperation could help in investigations of hacker groups and cyber attacks.

Another potential gotcha for hackers is that federal investigators routinely seek access to the server logs of ISPs as part of their investigations. "Most U.S.-based ISPs these days don't even report law enforcement requests to the public," Wisneiwski said. Just last week, William Lynn, the deputy secretary of the Department of Defense, revealed an experimental program in which DOD, Homeland Security, and NSA are working with ISPs to protect defense contractors from online threats.

In the case of many hackers, such as those dealing in stolen financial information, chats will take place in private, with new members coming into the group only if they know an existing member. However, in the cases of Anonymous and LulzSec, some of their chatrooms are public. The FBI has set up shop in numerous social media sites, going undercover where necessary to root out hackers and other online criminals, and it would not be surprising if they were actively monitoring IRC channels in this case.

NSA is developing ever-more sophisticated capabilities for monitoring and responding to online threats. The agency, which is part of DOD, is building a massive $1.2 billion data center in Utah that will be used to protect by military and private sector computer systems.

In the new, all-digital Dark Reading supplement: What industry can teach government about IT innovation and efficiency. Also in this issue: Federal agencies have to shift from annual IT security assessments to continuous monitoring of their risks. Download it now. (Free registration required.)

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