Hacktivists launch DDoS attacks on FBI, Justice Department, music and movie producers, in part using disguised links that trick people into assisting the assault.

Mathew J. Schwartz, Contributor

January 20, 2012

5 Min Read

The Department of Justice takedown Thursday of Megaupload and sister site Megavideo triggered a rapid retaliation from the hacktivist group known as Anonymous, which proceeded to knock the DOJ's website offline.

The tussle came in response to the Justice Department's 72-page indictment, unsealed Thursday in Virginia, which charged seven executives of Megaupload, which is based in Hong Kong, with copyright infringement and operating a criminal enterprise. According to the indictment, Megaupload generated $175 million in subscription and advertising revenue, while costing copyright holders $500 million in lost revenue.

Accompanying international raids saw 20 search warrants served in nine countries, including the United States, and $50 million in assets seized. Meanwhile, three of the accused, including 37-year old Kim Dotcom--a citizen of both Finland and Germany who also goes by the name Kim Tim Jim Vestor, and whose real name is Kim Schmitz--were arrested in Auckland, New Zealand. Four other people named in the indictment, however, remain at large.

[ Is piracy more of an IT problem or a business problem? Learn why Piracy Equals Market Failure. ]

Here's where the Megaupload story stands now:

1. Raids inflame political debate. The timing of the FBI's raid against one of the Internet's most popular file-locker sites was sure to serve as a flashpoint for many people who just one day previously had joined in what was billed as the largest online protest in history. Notably, they were demonstrating against proposed anti-piracy legislation--the House's Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Senate's PROTECT IP Act (PIPA)--which is backed by copyright enforcers but derided by others as being a threat to free speech, as well as the stability of the Internet.

2. Anonymous responds with massive DDoS attack. The DOJ raids led Anonymous to launch Thursday what it said was the largest distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack in history, which took down the websites of the Department of Justice, FBI, Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and Universal Music Group. Anonymous said 5,635 people had participated by using its low orbit ion cannon tool for flooding websites with fake packets, thus triggering a DDoS. It promised more "Operation MegaUpload" attacks would follow.

3. DOJ questions Anonymous assertions. A post to the AnonOps Twitter channel--a reliable source of Anonymous-related activities--late Thursday read: "One thing is certain: EXPECT US! #Megaupload." In response to the DOJ website outage which then occurred, however, an agency spokeswoman told CNN, "We are having website problems, but we're not sure what it's from." But just one hour after threatening the takedown, AnonOps announced: "justice.gov & universalmusic.com TANGO DOWN! You should have EXPECT US! #Megaupload." 4. Anonymous links launch auto-attacks. Unlike past attacks, with "OpMegaUpload" Anonymous appears to have not just relied on willing volunteers. "This time, things are slightly different: you only have to click on a Web link to launch a DDoS attack," said Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos, in a blog post. He said many of these links--which point to pastehtml.com--had been circulating in disguised form via Twitter, and warned that clicking on said links would execute a DDoS attack (which are illegal), unless JavaScript was disabled in the browser.

5. Megaupload was mega-popular. The Justice Department, in its indictment, claimed that traffic to Megaupload and its sister sites--50 million visitors daily, on average--accounted for 4% of all Internet traffic. Statistics from Google AdSense, meanwhile, put the average number of daily visitors to Megaupload, over the past year, at about 6 million, and said the site's traffic accounted for about 1.4% of all Internet traffic. By either measure, then, Megaupload was one of the most popular sites on the Internet.

6. Indictment hinged on Virginia servers. Given the push by the RIAA and MPAA for SOPA and PIPA to target rogue foreign websites hosting pirated content, does the DOJ's indictment signal that such legislation isn't necessary? In fact, the DOJ was able to claim jurisdiction only because some of Megaupload's servers were based in Virginia.

7. Copyright enforcers signal elation. The RIAA Thursday issued a statement saying the indictment--and the alleged charges--demonstrated "a sinister scheme to generate massive profits through the distribution of the stolen intellectual property of others." The RIAA labeled the related raids as "a historic blow against one of the most notorious illegal distribution hubs in the world," and plugged SOPA and PIPA as a way to continue the press, saying that "if this service were hosted and operated, for example, in a foreign country, our government would be essentially powerless to do anything about it."

8. Executives dismiss allegations. After the federal indictment was unsealed, however, a lawyer for Megaupload characterized the action as "a civil case in disguise," and said the company would "vigorously" defend itself, reported the Guardian.

9. Feds captured conversations. But Megaupload's defense could be complicated by the federal indictment, which cites emails in which executives reported searching their own service for copies of Sopranos episodes. Meanwhile, two joked that "we have a funny business ... modern days pirates :)" in a chat transcript quoted in the indictment.

10. Filesharing remains highly politicized. Megaupload was a self-described "online storage and file delivery service," more commonly labeled as a "media file locker" by users. Critics, on the other hand, often derided it as an "illegal distribution hub." A decade after the death of Napster, that variation in language highlights the political debate that continues to underpin not just the Megaupload story, but broader questions of copyright protection and Internet freedom.

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About the Author(s)

Mathew J. Schwartz


Mathew Schwartz served as the InformationWeek information security reporter from 2010 until mid-2014.

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