Headlines in last week's news and media pages might have given you the impression that major companies were seriously threatened by cyber warfare launched by the Anonymous group.  Those headlines started after companies including Visa and Paypal withdrew their support for WikiLeaks and became the target of cyber attacks. A report by Ben Cohen of Channel 4 News has revealed that the situation was not as serious as the headlines suggested. Ben's evidence indicates that fewer than one per cent of cyber attacks were caused by "hacktivist" groups and that few individuals are actively involved with the Anonymous group. Channel 4 invited me to contribute to the piece. It cost me most of a day's holiday, so I'll be intrigued to know what you make of the story. 



An interesting piece, but not unexpected after a lot of the previous week's hype clearly got out of  hand. 

The phrase 'cyber war' was ridiculously overused, but there were instances when I felt it was justified: in implying that wikileaks had sparked the first major cause internet users were prepared to fight for, for setting the first major battle-standard that so-called citizens of the internet are prepared to flock to. In these rare instances I'd be inclined to agree, as internet activism has been a relatively small phenomenon up until this point.

We saw a precursor to this with the student protests and the power of the internet in organising marches, demonstrations, petitions and occupations. Social networking tools are an activists dream. But these protests were still very much all localised causes, unlike the Wikileaks phenomenom which is world wide. You may say this is different as, other than online petitions, it doesn't involve any form of online protest, but if you're judging by the activities of Anonymous then the internet activism phenomenon is as much about using the web to organise protests in the physical world as it is about cyber protesting.

I'd never even heard of the concept of 'internet activism' before last week, but in the space of a few days three of my friends informed me they were participating in the cyber activism movement, and they don't all know each other either. 

Partly because of this I am dubious about the data interpreted by Channel 4: "Since October there have been 77,725 cyber attacks on specific websites world wide with less than 1 per cent caused by "hacktivists" such as Anonymous. [...] data relating to one un-named target: their website was brought down by just 110 identified individuals with three being based in the UK."

Firstly, to put what was cited into perspective: as of December 2009 there were 234 million recorded websites on the world wide web. Now, 77,725 cyber attacks on specific websites world wide since October of this year means the vast, vast majority of the internet never suffers targeted cyber attacks. 

So even less than 1% of this being aimed at a few websites in the name of any one cause, for only a few days remember, suddenly looks quite a bit more significant. 

Less than 1% of these caused by "hacktivists" - how do we know this? So far as I was aware the very nature of these attacks makes them hard to trace, enough people install the software (willingly or not) and then even one computer can overload a server with sheer demand, crashing the site.  Do these figures take into account the number of people who willingly downloaded the software to aid the people at the core of the cyber attack? I doubt it, yet this is exactly what so many of Anonymous's members were instructed to do and did. For this reason alone it would be a mistake to measure Anonymous's influence or size upon only these figures. 

One un-named target is not necessarily the norm, but aside from that we don't even know how many remain unidentified. Is 110 identified attackers most of them or hardly any? Does their definition of 'cyber attack' encompass several attackers behind each attack, or do they count each attacker as a separate attack? 

The stats put more questions in my mind than actual answers and I find it hard to draw concrete conclusions from them the way the Channel 4 piece did.

Tim you spoke about the interests of internet security companies - well, Arbor Networks seems to get quite a lot of publicity out of going against the flow and downgrading internet threats. They could have a vested interest in giving the most 'against the flow' results they can to news agencies.

Certainly coverage got out of hand last week, but I'd say this piece is in danger of going too far the other direction.

The truth about hacktivism