FBI casts broad net in Anonymous crackdown

Are the authorities quashing protest rights or defeating cyber criminals? Perhaps a bit of both

Dealing with civil unrest is a tricky business -- even more so when the civil unrest takes place online.

For nearly a year, the Anonymous movement -- and it's far more of a movement than the "group" that law enforcement keeps going on about -- has caused companies headaches while worldwide law enforcement agencies have appeared to do little.

Unrest with no consequences breeds more unrest. So it's no surprise that the LulzSec group formed to caused havoc earlier this year, using run-of-the-mill techniques to pick off easy targets such as Sony Pictures, PBS, and even a chapter of the public-private group, InfraGard. Following its 50 days of discord, LulzSec opted to retire, but its success could easily convince more people to form loose-knit hacktivist groups.

Against that backdrop, Tuesday's raids and arrests of people across the United States for taking part in various acts of cyber dissent comes as no surprise. In a statement, the U.S. Department of Justice stated that the FBI had arrested 16 people for computer crimes related -- in many cases, marginally -- to the Anonymous movement. The crimes ranged from a contractor leaking AT&T documents online -- documents that LulzSec disseminated publicly -- to a host of charges against 14 individuals for attacking PayPal with a denial-of-service attack as Anonymous-sanctioned retribution for the service's censure of WikiLeaks.

The latter group included a gaggle of 20-something males and two females, representing both the youngest and the oldest participants at 20 and 42 years olds, respectively. Each will be charged with aiding and abetting the damage to a protected computer, a violation under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

The arrests in the United States were coordinated with international law enforcement actions in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. In addition, the United States has served about three dozen search warrants in an attempt to glean more information about other Anonymous actors.

Some commentators have taken issue with the Department of Justice's characterization of the arrests as a blow to Anonymous. Yet, while law enforcement netted only small fry with the latest round of indictments, the Anonymous movement is nothing more than many unskilled small fry taking their marching orders from elsewhere on the Internet.

By showing that there are consequences to criminal acts -- whether motivated by actual ideals or a joy of disruption and a need for attention -- law enforcement is doing what it can to curtail a growing trend of cyber unrest.

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