There’s been a remarkable sequel to the hilarious payback delivered by Anonymous to American computer security executive Aaron Barr, who last weekend boasted that he had infiltrated Anonymous and could expose the identity of its leaders.

Anonymous promptly cracked Barr’s emails, corporate files and Twitter account, defaced his company’s webpage and released his Anonymous dossier, which turned out to be wildly inaccurate (among Anonymous’s members was said to be “Bernard Keane” of “Autralia”).

But among the material obtained by Anonymous from Barr’s company, HB Gary Federal, are plans to launch an attack on WikiLeaks, pitched to the Bank of America in December.

BoA is said to be the target of a large amount of material held by WikiLeaks, expected to be released shortly. What’s known publicly of BoA’s defence strategy to date consists of the bank buying up offensive domain names relating to its executives.

However, Tech Herald reported overnight that the Anonymous material revealed plans by HB Gary Federal, Palantir Technologies and Berico Technologies to attack WikiLeaks. The plan appears to have been prepared after the group initiated contact in December with Bank of America via law firm Hunton and Williams, which agreed to act as “outside council on retainer” for the project. Hunton and Williams were recommended to BoA by the Department of Justice, and HB Gary Federal, Palantir and Berico (particularly the latter two) have track records of working with the US government.

The plan went through multiple drafts. The final draft is available here (update: this Wikileaks link may be down – another link is available here, though this is a shorter version of the draft).

After profiling WikiLeaks — including referencing Attorney-General Robert McClelland’s risible claims that Julian Assange might face charges if he returned to Australia, since rejected by the AFP — the group’s strategy to attack WikiLeaks focused on:

  • fueling disputes within WikiLeaks via misinformation;
  • submitting false leaks to WikiLeaks “and then call out the error”;
  • breaking into WikiLeaks’ document system to obtain information on leakers, which would “kill the project”; and
  • waging a media campaign against WikiLeaks.

As part of the media campaign, the group proposes to target for “disruption” (in previous drafts, the word “attack” was used) Salon journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has been a strong US supporter of WikiLeaks. “These are established professionals that have a liberal bent,” says the document, “but ultimately most of them if pushed will choose professional preservation over cause, such is the mentality of most business professionals.”

Anyone familiar with Greenwald’s work would be aware of how utterly absurd that statement is.

The plan adopts an urgent tone in its pitch to Bank of America. “Speed is crucial!” it warns. “Combating this threat requires advanced subject matter [sic], expertise in cybersecurity, insider threats, counter cyber-fraud, targeting analysis, social media exploitation. Palantir Technologies, HBGary Federal, and Berico Technologies represent deep domain knowledge in each of these areas. They can be deployed tomorrow against this threat as a unified and cohesive investigative analysis cell.”

The document sheds a new light on why executives of HB Gary, which owns a substantial shareholding of HB Gary Federal, were so eager to prevent further distribution of the material cracked from HB Gary Federal’s systems by Anonymous. HB Gary president Penny Leaves took the remarkable step of venturing into an IRC channel with Anonymous members on Sunday night to plead that the email material not be put online. At the time her efforts looked like a brave attempt to engage with Anonymous on an issue for which she wasn’t directly responsible — indeed she confessed to being unhappy with Aaron Barr’s initial spruiking of how he had “penetrated” Anonymous.

In retrospect, her efforts may reflect awareness that a hitherto-secret corporate plan to attack WikiLeaks and a journalist were at risk of being exposed publicly.

How far the group had got with its plans to crack WikiLeaks’ systems is unknown, although the level of cyber-security on display at HB Gary Federal, which, according to Anonymous, was cracked by a 16-year-old member, shouldn’t fill Bank of American with confidence. As Barrett Brown shows at Daily Kos, the project was sufficiently advanced to produce tensions in the group in early December, when Barr complained that the  $600,000 HB Gary Federal was contracted to earn from the project — Palantir was earning  $800,000 — didn’t reflect the risk his company was incurring. “I do not want to seem ungrateful for Palantir bringing us this incredible opportunity, I am very grateful, but from a business perspective it just doesn’t match the levels of risk each organisation is undertaking,” Barr complained. Andy Greenberg of Forbes.com reported that none of the companies would comment on the revelations.

And while Anonymous is still the subject of an international investigation, you can bet HB Gary Federal, Palantir, Berico and their employers at Bank of America will attract no law enforcement attention despite developing a multimillion dollar plan to crack WikiLeaks and personally attack journalists.

Peter Fray

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