LulzSec Gentleman (via flickr)

Recently, federal law enforcement has received what it considers to be a crucial break in its crackdown on “hactktivism”: one of the most notorious hackers–Sabu, of the loosely organized hacking confederation LulzSec–has become a police informant. Law enforcement officials now hope to arrest those previously unknown individuals guilty of multiple acts of cyber crime.

For much of the last decade, disgruntled political activists have turned to online hacking to make political statements. The hackers’ activities have included shutting down the Church of Scientology’s website for conduct deemed to constitute Internet censorship and taking Visa and Master Card offline in retaliation for purportedly anti-Wikileaks behavior. Because the Department of Justice has broadly defined cyber crime to include “any violations of criminal law that involve a knowledge of computer technology for their perpetration, investigation, or prosecution,”  these hacktivist activities, along with many others, stand in violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which criminalizes the intentional accessing of computers to obtain (1) national security data, (2) financial records from financial institutions, and/or (3) information involved in interstate or foreign commerce without authorization. However, because of technology that enables hackers to act in anonymity, the Act is largely unenforceable. Law enforcement officials are hopeful that Sabu’s insider information will aid their efforts to shut down the hacktivist network.

Their success will likely be minimal. Indeed, while LulzSec (which folded in the summer of 2011) operated with distinct leadership, its closely related hacking confederation, Anonymous, is much more loosely organized and lacks a formal leadership structure. Anonymous-instigated attacks are typically the brain child of hackers worldwide who use online message boards like 4chan to enlist affiliates to serve as co-perpetrators. Because 4chan and its counterparts only track IP addresses–which are easily masked–law enforcement can neither trace the identities of the leaders nor those of the affiliates. Consequently, the arrests that Sabu makes possible will likely reach only a select few of the widely growing hacktivist network.

Law enforcement will thus likely need to develop alternate mechanisms to enforce cyber crime.

— Swathi Padmanabhan

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