There was an AP story yesterday (see, for example, the version on MSNBC)  that said that 25 suspected members of the group Anonymous had been arrested in Europe and South America.  The story noted that they were hackers, but what does that really mean?

A simple definition of a hacker is one who searches for weaknesses in computer programs and, once found, exploiting the weakness in the program.  Some hackers are nothing more than talented computer students who want to learn more about their craft and so they try to outsmart the designers of the software.  Others are people acting on a challenge from one’s peers.  Sometimes members of these two groups become “white hat” hackers who try to break into systems for the purpose of making those systems stronger.  Still others use hacking as a way of gaining access to financial accounts or to information that can be used to gain a profit.  However, the hackers associated with Anonymous are those who break into computer systems to make a political statement and/or to protest.

The “members” of Anonymous are part of a loosely affiliated and quite decentralized online community.  Anonymous has no leader or controlling party and relies on the collective power of its individual participants acting in such a way that the net effect benefits the group.  They communicate through electronic bulletin boards and image boards about injustices they perceive to exist in the world.  They then use hacking as a kind of activism to protest those injustices.  Early in their existence (circa 2008), these attacks were generally made against the motion picture and recording industries to protest anti-digital piracy campaigns by these industries.  Over the years, however, the members of Anonymous have broadened the issues about which they protest.

For example, members of Anonymous launched a protest against the Church of Scientology in response to its attempts to remove material from an interview with Tom Cruise ab0ut Scientology in 2008.  Recently Anonymous protested the proposed SOPA act.  Anonymous has also launched cyberattacks against Visa, MasterCard and PayPal as a protest against companies opposing Wikileaks.  The arrests cited by AP yesterday were for planning coordinated cyberattacks against institutions including Colombia’s defense ministry and presidential websites, Chile’s Endesa electricity company and national library.

Protests can take on a variety of forms.  Members of Anonymous might actually break into a system and steal data.  Or, they might launch Denial of Service attacks, which overload servers with too many users so that the servers cannot handle its regular users.

Why is it so hard to stop these hackers?  First, the members of Anonymous are located worldwide and are only loosely affiliated.  As said earlier, members might not know the identity of other members, so finding one might not lead you to another.  Second, the members use their knowledge of computers and computer networks to hide their tracks when they take action.  A command sent from London might be set up so that it appears to come from Sydney.

What does all of this mean to you, the web surfer?  It might just be an inconvenience.  Denial of Service attacks overwhelm servers so people like you cannot use them to check their accounts, make their purchases or find out information.  Or, it might mean that data about you is stolen  and released to others who might want to steal money or identity from you.  At the very least, it means that law enforcement is spending its time fighting this problem when it could be solving other crimes.