In particular, the group has launched Operation Darknet (#OpDarknet), which has so far largely targeted and crashed Freedom Hosting, which is an anonymized Tor Onion site that Anonymous members have accused of serving as a clearinghouse for child pornography.
"By taking down Freedom Hosting, we are eliminating 40+ child pornography websites, among these is Lolita City, one of the largest child pornography websites to date containing more than 100GB of child pornography," according to a Pastebin post from Anonmous. (Darknet refers to any part of the Internet that's not indexed by search engines.)
[ From Wall Street to child porn sites, Anonymous has been busy. Read Anonymous Threatens New York Stock Exchange Attack. ]
On Tuesday, Operation Darknet also leaked the entire user database for what it said were all 1,589 active Lolita City site members. The leaked information includes such details as usernames, how many images they've uploaded, as well as how long they've been a member. But there were no email addresses, other contact information, or passwords. "We were not able to obtain the password credentials (they use an SHA512 hash separate database to secure their passwords)," according to the group's Pastebin post, although it did find that the Tor site seemed to be hosted in the United States.
So far, Anonymous said it was only able to knock Freedom Hosting offline for about 30 hours, before running out of prepaid AT&T bandwidth. "We will continue to not only crash Freedom Hosting's server, but any other server we find to contain, promote, or support child pornography," it said. On Monday, meanwhile, the group also released a script for assessing which Tor Onion sites were currently online or not.
In a YouTube video released last week, Anonymous had announced the formation of Operation Darknet, noting that "the growing trade of child pornography has become a major problem," and also that "a potentially benevolent resource"--namely, anonymized Tor networks--"has been corrupted." In the video, Anonymous invited authorities to begin working with the usernames it had divulged. "If the FBI, Interpol, or other law enforcement agency should happen to come across this list, please use it to investigate and bring justice to the people listed here," it said.
"Did the Anonymous hackers do the right thing?" On Monday, Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos, posed that question in a blog post. His answer: "I don't think so. Their intentions may have been good, but take-downs of illegal websites and sharing networks should be done by the authorities, not Internet vigilantes," he said. "When 'amateurs' attack there is always the risk that they are compromising an existing investigation, preventing the police from gathering the necessary evidence they require for a successful prosecution, or making it difficult to argue that evidence has not been corrupted by hackers."
Law enforcement agencies, of course, already devote substantial resources to policing child pornography. Notably, an audit of the FBI found that the bureau, in 2009, devoted roughly equal time to investigating online child pornography as cyber crime.
Earlier this month, for example, the FBI--after working with law enforcement agencies in China--indicted a man on child pornography distribution charges. Chinese police had contacted the bureau after their investigation into a large-scale Chinese-language child pornography website led them to servers hosted on U.S. soil. The bureau, picking up the investigation, ultimately identified two servers in Dallas that were being used to host 18 domains, owned by a Chinese-born man living in Flushing, New York, who they arrested. Authorities alleged that he earned about $20,000 per month running the websites, likely since 2007.
Based on past Anonymous behavior, don't expect its online vigilantism to stop any time soon. In fact, in one of its many recent statements, OpDarknet already detailed its ongoing rules of engagement: "Our demands are simple. Remove all child pornography content from your servers. Refuse to provide hosting services to any website dealing with child pornography," it said. "This statement is not just aimed at Freedom Hosting, but everyone on the Internet. It does not matter who you are, if we find you to be hosting, promoting, or supporting child pornography, you will become a target."