Is the Anonymous threat on Toronto credible?

Inevitably, City of Toronto spokeswoman Margaret Dougherty can’t really say much.

“We do take all threats seriously. We are taking appropriate measures,” she says during our phone interview. Asked repeatedly for a little more detail, whether the City believes there’s a local component to the threat, I can practically hear her shaking her head.

“I can’t elaborate at all … we just can’t discuss (it) … we’re taking it seriously, given this organization’s past statements.”

The threat is that from hacking collective Anonymous, which has threatened in a YouTube video to “(remove) Toronto from the Internet” if Occupy Toronto protestors are evicted from their camp at St. James Park. Toronto mayor Rob Ford has told media he’ll get the eviction order, and that it’s time to move on. Anonymous – or at least a member of the amorphous hacktivist collective – doesn’t see it that way.

While Anonymous originally was more about entertainment – “Just for the lulz” – it has become increasingly political over the last year, with attacks on government systems during the Arab Spring, several attacks on Australian government Web sites, and, more recently, giving vocal support to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Is the threat of an attack on the City of Toronto’s Internet presence credible? Neil Quinn, vice-president of operations and security at Prolexic Technologies, a Hollywood, Fla., company that mitigates distributed denial of service attacks, has a one-word answer: “Yes.”

“The Occupy protests are fairly high-profile around the world,” Quinn says. “It’s a matter of whether enough participation can be mustered.”

Think of it as a march, he says; more marchers is more effective. Since there’s no central organization, “anyone can fly the flag, but they have to gather together enough people to do it.”

The video released on YouTube on Saturday hints at local involvement. There’s a direct reference to Ford, “the mayor that uses foul language in public,” in the computer-generated monologue. Support for Occupy Toronto is divided in the city, but generally in keeping with the social direction of Anonymous. Can “organizers” raise enough of the Low Orbit Ion Canon crew – the volunteer botnet army that Anonymous relies on for its DDoS attacks with a network stress testing application – to knock out Toronto’s online presence? Is Occupy high-profile enough to draw participation from around the world?

Anonymous reportedly said the organization would ignore Occupy Toronto unless it saw an “interruption” to the movement. If a threat of eviction is enough of an “interruption,” what if the actual eviction becomes a scene out of Oakland, where police fired tear gas into a crowd of protestors? “Some tactics used by law enforcement can elevate (the risk of a cyberattack),” Quinn notes.

Naysayers point out that two recent Anonymous threats – one to bring down Facebook and another threat on the Toronto Stock Exchange – didn’t materialize. But the Facebook threat, according to Forbes magazine, wasn’t certainly Anonymous-related. And consider the scale needed to attack the Toronto Stock Exchange, which has to process millions of secure transactions a day. The fact that attack didn’t come to pass hardly makes it less likely that a softer target, no offence intended, wouldn’t come under attack.

In fact, Quinn says, “since the threat against the TSX was so recent, that might add to the likelihood” of an attack.

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Dave Webb
Dave Webb
Dave Webb is a freelance editor and writer. A veteran journalist of more than 20 years' experience (15 of them in technology), he has held senior editorial positions with a number of technology publications. He was honoured with an Andersen Consulting Award for Excellence in Business Journalism in 2000, and several Canadian Online Publishing Awards as part of the ComputerWorld Canada team.

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