Salon exclusive: A D.C. computer executive thought he could outwit the hacker collective. He was very, very wrong
Excerpted from “WE ARE ANONYMOUS: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency” by Parmy Olson.
Across America on February 6, 2011, millions of people were settling into their couches, splitting open bags of nachos and spilling beer into plastic cups in preparation for the year’s biggest sporting event. On that Super Bowl Sunday, during which the Green Bay Packers conquered the Pittsburgh Steelers, a digital security executive named Aaron Barr watched helplessly as seven people whom he’d never met turned his world upside down. Super Bowl Sunday was the day he came face-to-face with Anonymous.
By the end of that weekend, the word “Anonymous” had new ownership. Augmenting the dictionary definition of being something with no identifiable name, it seemed to be a nebulous, sinister group of hackers hell-bent on attacking enemies of free information, including individuals like Barr, a husband and a father of twins who had made the mistake of trying to figure out who Anonymous really was.
The real turning point was lunchtime, with six hours to go until the Super Bowl kickoff. As Barr sat on the living room couch in his home in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., dressed comfortably for the day in a T-shirt and jeans, he noticed that his iPhone hadn’t buzzed in his pocket for the last half hour. Normally it alerted him to an email every 15 minutes. When he fished the phone out of his pocket and pressed a button to refresh his mail, a dark blue window popped up. It showed three words that would change his life: Cannot Get Mail. The email client then asked him to verify the right password for his email. Barr went into the phone’s account settings and carefully typed it in: “kibafo33.” It didn’t work. His emails weren’t coming through.
He looked down at the small screen blankly. Slowly, a tickling anxiety crawled up his back as he realized what this meant. Since chatting with a hacker from Anonymous called Topiary a few hours ago, he had thought he was in the clear. Now he knew that someone had hacked his HBGary Federal account, possibly accessing tens of thousands of internal emails, then locked him out. This meant that someone, somewhere, had seen nondisclosure agreements and sensitive documents that could implicate a multinational bank, a respected U.S. government agency, and his own company.
One by one, memories of specific classified documents and messages surfaced in his mind, each heralding a new wave of sickening dread. Barr dashed up the stairs to his home office and sat down in front of his laptop. He tried logging on to his Facebook account to speak to a hacker he knew, someone who might be able to help him. But that network, with his few hundred friends, was blocked. He tried his Twitter account, which had a few hundred followers. Nothing. Then Yahoo. The same. He’d been locked out of almost every one of his Web accounts, even the online role-playing game World of Warcraft. Barr silently kicked himself for using the same password on every account. He glanced over at his Wi-Fi router and saw frantic flashing lights. Now people were trying to overload it with traffic, trying to jam their way further into his home network.
He reached over and unplugged it. The flashing lights went dead.
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Aaron Barr was a military man. Broad shouldered, with jet-black hair and heavy eyebrows that suggested distant Mediterranean ancestors, he had signed up for the U.S. Navy after taking two semesters of college and realizing it wasn’t for him. He soon became a SIGINT, or signals intelligence, officer, specializing in a rare assignment, analytics. Barr was sent abroad as needed: Four years in Japan, three in Spain, and secondments all over Europe, from Ukraine to Portugal to Italy. He was stationed on amphibious warships and got shot at on land in Kosovo. The experience made him resent the way war desensitized soldiers to human life.
After 12 years in the navy he picked up a job at defense contractor Northrop Grumman and settled down to start a family, covering over his Navy tattoos and becoming a company man. He got a break in November 2009 when a security consultant named Greg Hoglund asked Barr if he wanted to help him start a new company. Hoglund was already running a digital security company called HBGary Inc., and, knowing Barr’s military background and expertise in cryptography, he wanted him to start a sister company that would specialize in selling services to the United States government. It would be called HBGary Federal, and HBGary Inc. would own 10 percent. Barr jumped at the chance to be his own boss and see more of his wife and two young children by working from home.
He relished the job at first. In December 2009, he couldn’t sleep for three nights in a row because his mind was racing with ideas about new contracts. He’d get on his computer at 1:30 a.m. and email Hoglund with some of his thoughts. Less than a year later, though, none of Barr’s ideas was bringing in any money. Barr was desperate for contracts, and he was keeping the tiny company of three employees afloat by running “social media training” for executives, bringing in $25,000 at a time. These were not lessons in how to maintain friendships on Facebook but in how to use social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter to gather information on people — as spying tools.
In October 2010, salvation finally came. Barr started talking to Hunton & Williams, a law firm whose clients — among them the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Bank of America — needed help dealing with opponents. WikiLeaks, for example, had recently hinted at a trove of confidential data it was holding from Bank of America. Barr and two other security firms made PowerPoint presentations that proposed, among other things, disinformation campaigns to discredit WikiLeaks-supporting journalists and cyber attacks on the WikiLeaks website. He dug out his fake Facebook profiles and showed how he might spy on the opponents, “friending” Hunton & Williams’s own staff and gathering intelligence on their personal lives. The law firm appeared interested, but there were still no contracts come January 2011, and HBGary Federal needed money.
Then Barr had an idea. A conference in San Francisco for security professionals called B-Sides was coming up. If he gave a speech revealing how his social media snooping had uncovered information on a mysterious subject, he’d get newfound credibility and maybe even those contracts.
Barr decided that there was no better target than Anonymous. About a month prior, in December 2010, the news media exploded with reports that a large and mysterious group of hackers had started attacking the websites of MasterCard, PayPal, and Visa in retaliation for their having cut funding to WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks had just released a cache of thousands of secret diplomatic cables, and its founder and editor in chief, Julian Assange, had been arrested in the U.K., ostensibly for sexual misconduct.
Hackers was a famously imprecise word. It could mean enthusiastic programmer, it could mean cyber criminal. But people in Anonymous, or Anons, were often dubbed hacktivists — hackers with an activist message. From what anyone could tell, they believed all information should be free, and they might just hit your website if you disagreed. They claimed to have no structure or leaders. They claimed they weren’t a group but “everything and nothing.” The closest description seemed to be “brand” or “collective.” Their few rules were reminiscent of the movie “Fight Club”: Don’t talk about Anonymous, never reveal your true identity, and don’t attack the media, since they could be purveyors of a message. Naturally, anonymity made it easier to do the odd illegal thing, break into servers, steal a company’s customer data, or take a website offline and then deface it. Stuff that could saddle you with a ten-year prison term. But the Anons didn’t seem to care. There was strength and protection in numbers after all, and they posted their ominous tagline on blogs, hacked websites, or wherever they could:
We are Anonymous
We are Legion
We do not forgive
We do not forget
Their digital flyers and messages featured a logo of a headless, suited man surrounded by UN-style peace branches, supposedly based on the surrealist painting of a man with a bowler hat and apple by René Magritte. Often it included the leering mask of Guy Fawkes, the London revolutionary embellished in the movie “V for Vendetta” and now the symbol of a faceless rebel horde. Anonymous was impossible to quantify, but this wasn’t just dozens or even hundreds of people. Thousands from all over the world had visited its main chat rooms in December 2010 to take part in its attacks on PayPal, and thousands regularly visited Anonymous-related blogs and new sites like AnonNews.org. Everyone in the cyber security field was talking about Anonymous, but no one seemed to know who these people were.
Barr was intrigued. He had watched the world’s attention to this mysterious group grow and seen reports of dozens of raids and arrests in the United States and Europe. Yet no one had been convicted, and the group’s leaders had not been tracked down. Barr believed he could do better than the Federal Bureau of Investigation — maybe help the FBI, too — with his social media snooping expertise. Going after Anonymous was risky, but he figured if the collective turned on him, the worst they could do was take down the website of HBGary Federal for a few hours — a couple of days, tops.
He had started by lurking in the online chat rooms where Anonymous supporters congregated and creating a nickname for himself, first AnonCog, then CogAnon. He blended in, using the group’s lingo and pretending to be a young new recruit eager to bring down a company or two. On the side, he’d quietly note the nicknames of others in the chat room. There were hundreds, but he paid attention to the frequent visitors and those who got the most attention. When these people left the chat room, he’d note the time, too. Then he’d switch to Facebook. Barr had created several fake Facebook personas by now and had “friended” dozens of real-world people who openly claimed to support Anonymous. If one of those friends suddenly became active on Facebook soon after a nickname had exited the Anonymous chat room, Barr figured he had a match.
By late January, he was putting the finishing touches on a 20-page document of names, descriptions, and contact information for suspected Anonymous supporters and leaders. On January 22, Barr sent an email to Hoglund and HBGary Inc. co-president Penny Leavy (who was also Hoglund’s wife) and Barr’s second in command, Ted Vera, about his now forthcoming talk at B-Sides on Anonymous. The big benefit of the talk would be the press attention. He would also tell a few people in Anonymous, under a false persona, about the research of a “so-called cyber security expert” named Aaron Barr.
“This will generate a big discussion in Anonymous chat channels, which are attended by the press,” Barr told Hoglund and Leavy. Ergo, more press about the talk. “But,” he added “it will also make us a target. Thoughts?”
Hoglund’s reply was brief: “Well, I don’t really want to get DDoS’d, so assuming we do get DDoS’d then what? How do we make lemonade from that?” Hoglund was referring to a distributed denial of service attack, which described what happened when a multitude of computers were coordinated to overwhelm a site with so much data that it was temporarily knocked offline. It was Anonymous’s most popular form of attack. It was like punching someone in the eye. It looked bad and it hurt, but it didn’t kill you.
Barr decided the best thing to do was reach out directly to the press before his talk. He contacted Joseph Menn, a San Francisco-based reporter for the Financial Times, offering an interview about how his data could lead to more arrests of “major players” in Anonymous. He gave Menn a taste of his findings: of the several hundred participants in Anonymous cyber attacks, only about thirty were steadily active, and just ten senior people managed most of the decisions. Barr’s comments and the story of his investigation suggested for the first time that Anonymous was a hierarchy and not as “anonymous” as it thought. The paper ran the story on Friday, February 4, with the headline “Cyberactivists Warned of Arrest,” and quoted Barr.
Barr got a small thrill from seeing the published article and emailed Hoglund and Leavy with the subject line, “Story is really taking shape.”
“We should post this on the front page, throw out some tweets,” Hoglund replied. “‘HBGary Federal sets a new bar as private intelligence agency.’ The pun on bar is intended lol.”
By the end of Friday, detectives from the FBI’s e-crime division had read the article and contacted Barr asking if he wouldn’t mind sharing his information. He agreed to meet them Monday, the day after the Super Bowl. At around the same time, a small group of hackers with Anonymous had read the story, too.
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They were three people, in three different parts of the world, and they had been invited into an online chat room. Their online nicknames were Topiary, Sabu and Kayla, and at least two of them, Sabu and Topiary, were meeting for the first time. The person who had invited them went by the nickname Tflow, and he was also in the room. No one here knew anyone else’s real name, age, sex or location. Two of them, Topiary and Sabu, had only been using their nicknames on public chat rooms for the last month or two. They knew snippets of gossip about one another, and that each believed in Anonymous. That was the gist of it.
The chat room was locked, meaning no one could enter unless invited. Conversation was stilted at first, but within a few minutes everyone was talking. Personalities started to emerge. Sabu was assertive and brash, and he used slang like “yo” and “my brother.” None of the others in the room knew this, but he was a born-and-bred New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent. He had learned to hack computers as a teenager, subverting his family’s dial-up connection so they could get Internet access for free, then learning more tricks on hacker forums in the late 1990s. Around 2001, the nickname Sabu had gone underground; now, almost a decade later, it was back. Sabu was the heavyweight veteran of the group.
Kayla was childlike and friendly but fiercely smart. She claimed to be female and, if asked, 16 years old. Many assumed this a lie. While there were plenty of young hackers in Anonymous, and plenty of female supporters of Anonymous, there were very few young hackers who were female. Still, if it was a lie, it was elaborate. She was chatty and gave away plenty of colorful information about her personal life: she had a job in her salon, babysat for extra money, and took vacations in Spain.
She even claimed Kayla was her real name, kept as a “fuck you” to anyone who dared try to identify her. Paradoxically, she was obsessive about her computer’s privacy. She never typed her real name into her netbook in case it got key-logged, had no physical hard drive, and would boot up from a tiny microSD card that she could quickly swallow if the police ever came to her door. Rumor even had it that she’d stabbed her webcam with a knife one day, just in case someone took over her PC and filmed her unaware.
Topiary was the least skilled of the group when it came to hacking, but he had another talent to make up for it: His wit. Cocksure and often brimming with ideas, Topiary used his silver tongue and an unusual knack for public promotion to slowly make his way up the ladder of secret planning rooms in the Anonymous chat networks. While others strained to listen at the door, Topiary got invited right in. He had become so trusted that the network operators asked him to write the official Anonymous statements for each attack on PayPal and MasterCard. He had picked his nickname on a whim. The low-budget time travel film “Primer” had been a favorite, and when he found out its director was working on a new film called “A Topiary,” he decided he liked the word, oblivious to its definition of clipped ornamental shrubs.
Tflow, the guy who’d brought everyone here, was a skilled programmer and mostly quiet, a person who strictly followed the Anonymous custom of never talking about himself. He had been with Anonymous for at least four months, a good amount of time to understand its culture and key figures within it. He knew the communications channels and supporting cast of hackers better than most. Fittingly, he got down to business. Someone had to do something about this Aaron Barr and his “research.” Barr had claimed there were leaders in Anonymous, which wasn’t true. That meant his research was probably wrong. Then there was that quote from the Financial Times story saying Barr had “collected information on the core leaders, including many of their real names, and that they could be arrested if law enforcement had the same data.”
This now posed another problem: if Barr’s data was actually right, Anons could be in trouble. The group started making plans. First, they had to scan the server that ran the HBGary Federal website for any source code vulnerabilities. If they got lucky, they might find a hole they could enter, then take control and replace Barr’s homepage with a giant logo of Anonymous and a written warning not to mess with their collective.
That afternoon, someone looked up “Aaron Barr” on Google and came up with his official company portrait: swept-back hair, suit, and a keen stare at the camera. The group laughed when they saw the photo. He looked so … earnest, and increasingly like fresh meat. Then Sabu started scanning HBGaryFederal.com for a hole. It turned out Barr’s site ran on a publishing system created by a third-party developer, which had a major bug. Jackpot.
Though its job was to help other companies protect themselves from cyber attacks, HBGary Federal itself was vulnerable to a simple attack method called SQL injection, which targeted databases. Databases were one of the many key technologies powering the Internet. They stored passwords, corporate emails, and a wide variety of other types of data. The use of Structured Query Language (SQL, commonly mispronounced “sequel”) was a popular way to retrieve and manipulate the information in databases. SQL injection worked by “injecting” SQL commands into the server that hosted the site to retrieve information that should be hidden, essentially using the language against itself. As a result, the server would not recognize the typed characters as text, but as commands that should be executed. Sometimes this could be carried out by simply typing out commands in the search bar of a homepage. The key was to find the search bar or text box that represented a weak entry point.
This could be devastating to a company. If DDoSing meant a sucker punch, SQL injection was secretly removing someone’s vital organs while they slept. The language it required, a series of symbols and key words like “SELECT,” “NULL” and “UNION,” were gibberish to people like Topiary, but for Sabu and Kayla they rolled off the tongue.
Now that they were in, the hackers had to root around for the names and passwords of people like Barr and Hoglund, who had control of the site’s servers. Jackpot again. They found a list of usernames and passwords for HBGary employees. But here was a stumbling block. The passwords were encrypted, or “hashed,” using a standard technique called MD5. If all the administrative passwords were lengthy and complicated, it might be impossible to crack them, and the hackers’ fun would have come to an end.
Sabu picked out three hashes, long strings of random numbers corresponding to the passwords of Aaron Barr, Ted Vera, and another executive named Phil Wallisch. He expected them to be exceptionally tough to unlock, and when he passed them to the others on the team, he wasn’t surprised to find that no one could crack them. In a last-ditch attempt, he uploaded them to a Web forum for password cracking that was popular among hackers — Hashkiller.com. Within a couple of hours all three hashes had been cracked by random anonymous volunteers. The result for one of them looked exactly like this: 4036d5fe575fb46f48ffcd5d7aeeb5af:kibafo33
Right there at the end of the string of letters and numbers was Aaron Barr’s password. When they tried using kibafo33 to access his HBGary Federal emails hosted by Google Apps, they got in. The group couldn’t believe their luck. By Friday night they were watching an oblivious Barr exchange happy emails with his colleagues about the Financial Times article.
On a whim, one of them decided to check to see if kibafo33 worked anywhere else besides Barr’s email account. It was worth a try. Unbelievably for a cyber security specialist investigating the highly volatile Anonymous, Barr had used the same easy-to-crack password on almost all his Web accounts, including Twitter, Yahoo!, Flickr, Facebook, even World of Warcraft. This meant there was now the opportunity for pure, unadulterated “lulz.”
Lulz was a variation of the term lol — “laugh out loud” — which had for years been tagged onto the end of lighthearted statements such as “The pun on bar is intended lol.” A more recent addition to Web parlance, lulz took that sentiment further and essentially meant entertainment at someone else’s expense. Prank-calling the FBI was lol. Prank-calling the FBI and successfully sending a SWAT team to Aaron Barr’s house was lulz.
The group decided that they would not swoop on Barr that day or even the next. They would take the weekend to spy on him and download every email he’d ever sent or received during his time with HBGary Federal. But there was sense of urgency. As they started browsing, the team realized Barr was planning to meet the FBI the following Monday. Once they had taken what they could, it was decided all hell would break loose at kickoff on Super Bowl Sunday. There were 60 hours to go.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - -
Saturday started off as any other for Barr. Relaxing and spending time with his family, sending and receiving a few emails from his iPhone over breakfast, he had no idea that an Anonymous team of seven was busy delving into his emails, or how excited they were with what they had stumbled upon. Their latest find: Barr’s own research on Anonymous. It was a PDF document that started with a decent, short explanation of what Anonymous was. It listed websites, a timeline of recent cyber attacks, and lots of nicknames next to real-life names and addresses. The names Sabu, Topiary, and Kayla were nowhere to be seen. At the end were hasty notes like “Mmxanon — states … ghetto.” It looked unfinished. As they gradually realized how Barr had been using Facebook to try to identify real people, it looked like he had no idea what he was doing. It looked like Barr might actually point the finger at some innocent people.
In the meantime, Tflow had downloaded Barr’s emails onto his server, then waited about 15 hours for them to compile into a torrent, a tiny file that linked to a larger file on a host computer somewhere else, in this case HBGary’s. It was a process that millions of people across the world used every day to download pirated software, music, or movies, and Tflow planned to put his torrent file on the most popular torrenting site around: The Pirate Bay. This meant that soon, anyone could download and read more than 40,000 of Aaron Barr’s emails.
That morning, with about 30 hours until kickoff, Barr ran some checks on HBGaryFederal.com and, just as he had expected, saw it was getting more traffic than usual. That didn’t mean more legitimate visitors, but the beginnings of a DDoS attack from Anonymous. It wasn’t the end of the world, but he logged into Facebook under the fake profile Julian Goodspeak to talk to one of his Anon contacts, an apparently senior figure who went by the nickname CommanderX. Barr’s research and discussions with CommanderX had led him to believe his real name was “Benjamin Spock de Vries,” though this was not accurate. CommanderX, who had no idea that a small group of hackers was already in Barr’s emails, responded to Barr’s instant message. Barr was asking politely if CommanderX could do something about the extra traffic he was getting.
“I am done with my research. I am not out to get you guys,” Barr explained. “My focus is on social media vulnerabilities.” Barr meant that his research was merely trying to show how organizations could be infiltrated by snooping on the Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn profiles of their members.
“Not my doing,” CommanderX said honestly. He had taken a look at the HBGaryFederal website and pointed out to Barr that in any case, it looked vulnerable. “I hope you are being paid well.”
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Sunday morning, with 11 hours till kickoff, Tflow was done collating all of Barr’s emails and those of the two other executives, Vera and Wallisch. The torrent file was ready to publish. Now came the pleasure of telling Barr what they had just done. Of course, to play this right, the hackers wouldn’t tell him everything immediately. Better lulz would come from toying with him first. By now they had figured out that Barr was using the nickname CogAnon to talk to people in Anonymous chat rooms, and that he lived in Washington, D.C.
“We have everything from his Social Security number, to his career in the military, to his clearances,” Sabu told the others, “to how many shits a day he takes.”
At around 8 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on Sunday morning, they decided to make him a little paranoid before the strike. When Barr entered the AnonOps chat network as CogAnon, Topiary sent him a private message.
“Hello,” said Topiary.
“Hi,” CogAnon replied.
In another chat window Topiary was giving a running commentary to other Anons who were laughing at his exploits. “Tell him you’re recruiting for a new mission,” Sabu said.
“Be careful,” said another. “He may get suspicious quickly.”
Topiary went back into his conversation with the security specialist, still pretending to believe CogAnon was a real Anonymous supporter. “We’re recruiting for a new operation in the Washington area. Interested?”
Barr paused for 20 seconds. “Potentially. Depends on what it is,” he said.
Topiary pasted the response in the other chat room.
“Hahahahhaa,” said Sabu.
“Look at that faggot trying to psyops me out of info,” Topiary said, referring to the tactics of psychological warfare. The word faggot was a word so liberally used in Anonymous that it wasn’t even considered a real insult.
“I take it from your host that you’re near where our target is,” Topiary told Barr.
Back in Washington, D.C., Barr held his breath. “Is it physical or virtual?” he typed back, knowing full well it was virtual but at a loss for what else to say. “Ah yeah … I am close…” How exactly could they have figured out he lived in D.C.?
“Virtual,” Topiary replied. “Everything is in place.”
Topiary relayed this again to the Anons. “I’d laugh so hard if he sends an email about this,” he told them.
They couldn’t believe what they were reading. “THIS GUY IS A FUCKING DICK,” Sabu exclaimed.
“I want to rape his anus,” Topiary replied. “Raping” servers was typically a way to describe a hack into its network. Tflow made a new chat room in the Anonymous chat network called #ophbgary and invited Topiary to join it.
“Guys,” a hacker named Avunit piped up. “Is this really happening? Because this shit is awesome.”
Back in the conversation, Barr tried to sound helpful. “I can be in the city within a few hours … depending on traffic lol.”
Topiary decided to give him another fright: “Our target is a security company,” he said. Barr’s stomach turned. Okay, so this meant Anonymous was definitely targeting HBGary Federal. He opened up his email client and quickly typed out an email to other HBGary managers, including Hoglund and Penny Leavy.
“Now we are being directly threatened,” he wrote. “I will bring this up with the FBI when I meet them tomorrow.” Sabu and the others quietly watched him send it.
He clicked back into the chat with Topiary. “Ok well just let me know,” he wrote. “Not sure how I can still help though?”
“That depends,” Topiary said. “What skills do you have? We need help gathering info on Ligatt.com security company.”
Barr let out a long breath of relief. Ligatt was in the same line of work as HBGary Federal, so it looked (for now at least) like his company was not the target after all.
“Ahhhh ok let me check them out,” Barr replied almost gratefully. “It’s been a while since I have looked at them. Anything specific?” At this point he seemed happy to do anything that would keep HBGary from being a target, even if he was just playing along.
There was no reply.
He typed, “I didn’t realize they were local to D.C.”
A minute later he added, “Man I am racking my brain and I can’t remember why they were so popular a while back. I remember their [sic] being a lot of aggression towards them.”
“You still there?” Barr asked.
Topiary had gone back to planning with the others. There wasn’t much time left and he had to write the official Anonymous message that would replace the homepage of HBGaryFederal.com.
About 45 minutes later, Topiary finally replied. “Sorry about that — stay tuned.”
“OK,” Barr wrote.
A few hours later and it was lunchtime, about six hours until the Super Bowl kickoff, with Barr sitting in his living room and staring in dreadful fascination at his phone after realizing he’d just been locked out of his emails. When he ran upstairs to try talking to CommanderX again on Facebook, he’d been locked out of that, too. When he saw that his Twitter account was under someone else’s control, it hit him how serious this was, and how potentially very embarrassing.
He picked up the phone and called Greg Hoglund and Penny Leavy to let them know what was going on. Then he called his IT administrators, who said they would contact Google to try and regain control of HBGaryFederal.com. But there was nothing they could do about the stolen emails.
At 2.45 p.m., Barr got another message from Topiary: “Right, something will be happening tonight. How available are you throughout the evening?” There were just a few more hours to go, and he wanted Barr to have a front-row seat to the end of his career.
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As Sunday evening drew near on the eastern seaboard, the Anons, in their own homes and time zones around the world, got ready to pounce. Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, started filling up. There were a few songs from the Black Eyed Peas, and Christina Aguilera muddling the words to the national anthem. Finally, the coin toss. A player from the Green Bay Packers drew back his foot and kicked the pigskin across the field.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Topiary watched on his laptop as the football flew through the sky. Sitting in his black leather gaming chair, a giant pair of headphones resting on his hair, he swiftly opened up another window and logged into Barr’s Twitter account. He had locked Barr out six hours ago with the kibafo33 password and with the Super Bowl finally underway he started posting from it. He felt no inhibition, no sense of holding back from this man. He would let Barr have it: “Okay my fellow Anonymous faggots,” he wrote from Barr’s Twitter account, “we’re working on bringing you the finest lulz as we speak. Stay tuned!”
Then: “Sup motherfuckers, I’m CEO of a shitty company and I’m a giant media-whoring cunt. LOL check out my nigga Greg’s site: rootkit.com.” These were statements that Topiary would never have said out loud, or face to face with Barr. In real life he was quiet, polite, and rarely swore.
Rootkit.com was Hoglund’s website specializing in the latest research on programming tools that gave root access to a computer network. Ironically, Sabu and Kayla now had system administrator access, or “root” on rootkit.com, too. This was because Barr had been an administrator of the company’s email system, meaning “kibafo33” let them reset the passwords of other in-boxes, including Hoglund’s.
Once he got into Hoglund’s in-box, Sabu sent out an email as Hoglund to one of HBGary’s IT administrators, a Finnish security specialist named Jussi Jaakonaho. Sabu was looking for root access to rootkit.com.
“im in europe and need to ssh into the server,” Sabu wrote in the email to Jaakonaho, using lower-case letters to suggest he was in a rush. SSH stood for “secure shell” and referred to a way of logging into a server from a remote location. When Jaakonaho asked if Hoglund (Sabu) was on a public computer, Hoglund (Sabu) said, “no I dont have the public ip with me at the moment because im ready for a small meeting and im in a rush. if anything just reset my password to changeme123 and give me public IP and ill ssh in and reset my pw [password].”
“Ok,” Jaakonaho replied. “Your password is changeme123.” He added, with a smiley face, “In Europe but not in Finland?”
Sabu played along. “if I can squeeze out the time maybe we can catch up … ill be in germany for a little bit. thanks.” The password didn’t even work right away, and Sabu had to email Jaakonaho a few more times with questions, including whether his own username was “greg or?” before Jaakonaho explained it was “hoglund.” Sabu got in. This was a prime example of social engineering, the art of manipulating someone into divulging secret information or doing something they normally wouldn’t.
Now Sabu and Kayla had complete control of rootkit.com. First they took the usernames and passwords of anyone who had ever registered on the site, then deleted its entire contents. Now it was just a blank page reading “Greg Hoglund = Owned.” Sabu found he enjoyed working with Kayla. She was friendly, and she had extraordinary technical skills. Sabu later told others that she had socially engineered Jussi Jaakonaho, partly because the idea of being “owned” by a sixteen-year-old girl would only embarrass HBGary further.
Sabu and Kayla then got busy on HBGaryFederal.com, removing the homepage and replacing it with the Anonymous logo of the headless suited man. In place of its head was a question mark. At the bottom was a link that said “Download HBGary emails” — Tflow’s torrent file. Now anyone could read all of Barr’s confidential emails to his clients as easily as they might grab a song on iTunes, but for free. The new homepage also had a message written by Topiary:
This domain has been seized by Anonymous under section #14 of the Rules of the Internet. Greetings HBGary (a computer “security” company). Your recent claims of “infiltrating” Anonymous amuse us, and so do your attempts at using Anonymous as a means to garner press attention for yourself. How’s this for attention? You’ve tried to bite at the Anonymous hand, and now the Anonymous hand is bitchslapping you in the face.
By 6:45, 24 minutes into the Super Bowl, most of the “hacking” was over. There were no distant cheers and whoops for the football game from Barr’s neighbors, who were mostly young families. The world around him seemed strangely quiet. With some trepidation, he logged back into the Anonymous chat rooms to confront his attackers. They were ready and waiting. Barr saw a message flash up, an invite to a new chat room called #ophbgary. He immediately saw a group of several nicknames. Some he recognized from his research and others he didn’t: along with Topiary, Sabu, Kayla, there were others: Q, Heyguise, BarrettBrown, and c0s. The last nickname was Gregg Housh, a long-time Anon in his mid-30s who had helped coordinate the first wave of major DDoS attacks by Anonymous in 2008, against the Church of Scientology (COS).
Topiary got things going. “Now they’re threatening us directly,” he told Barr, quoting the earlier email. “Amirite?”
Barr said nothing.
“Enjoying the Super Bowl, I hope?” Q said.
“Hello Mr. Barr,” Tflow said. “I apologize for what’s about to happen to you and your company.”
Finally, Barr spoke up. “I figured something like this would happen,” he typed.
“Nah, you won’t like what’s coming next,” Topiary said.
Barr tried persuading the group that he’d had their best interests at heart. “Dude … you just don’t get it,” he protested. “It was research on social media vulnerabilities. I was never going to release the names.”
“LIAR.” This was Sabu. “Don’t you have a meeting with the FBI Monday morning?”
“Sabu, he totally does,” said Topiary.
“Ok … Yep,” Barr conceded. “They called me.”
“Oh guys. What’s coming next is the delicious cake,” Topiary said.
It was up to Tflow to finally drop the bombshell. “I have Barr’s, Ted’s and Phil’s emails,” he said. All 68,000.
“Those emails are going to be pretty,” said Housh.
“Lol,” Barr replied inexplicably. He seemed to want to keep proceedings light, or to convince himself this wasn’t as bad as he thought. “Ok guys,” he added, “well you got me right :).”
Indeed they had. Topiary made his parting shot. “Well Aaron, thanks for taking part in this little mini social test to see if you’d run to your company with ‘news’ about Anon. You did, we leeched it, we laughed.” He paused. “Die in a fire. You’re done.”
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – -
It was now well into the early hours of Monday morning. Barr was sitting in his home office in front of the laptop, his hopes of a turnaround having dwindled to nothing. On the wall in front of him was a photo he’d bought in New York on October 2011. The 9/11 attacks were still raw, and after visiting Ground Zero he’d popped into a small gallery selling amateur photographs taken during the attacks. One stood out. In the background was the chaos of the fallen towers: papers and bricks strewn everywhere, dazed commuters covered in dust, while in the foreground was John Seward Johnson’s Double Check, the famous bronze statue of a suited businessman on a park bench, looking into his open briefcase. Something about its incongruence made him like it instantly. Now Barr was that man, so caught up in his ambitions that he’d become oblivious to the chaos going on around him.
His public Twitter feed, an important reputational tool with the public, his clients, and the press, was now an obscene mess. Topiary had posted dozens of tweets filled with swear words and racist commentary. His bio now read, “CEO HBGary Federal. Cybersecurity and Information Operations specialist and RAGING HOMOGAY.” His photo had the word “NIGGER” defaced across it in bold red lettering. Topiary did not consider himself racist — no one in his group did. But the graffiti was perfectly in tune with the underground culture of crude humor and cyber bullying that ran through Anonymous.
Topiary felt a thrill as he then posted Barr’s home address. Then he tweeted Barr’s social security number, then his cellphone number. Anyone with an Internet connection could read this. “Hi guys, leave me voicemails!” Then the number. Then “#callme.”
Soon, hundreds and then thousands of people who perused Anonymous chat rooms, blogs, and Twitter feeds had heard about what was happening to Aaron Barr. They clicked on links to Barr’s website, now a white screen with the Anonymous logo and message. They watched the Twitter feed and called his number. Quite a few started taking his earnest corporate photo and defacing it, cutting out his head and sticking it on a movie poster for James Bond to mock his spying methods. Another bloated his chin to make him look like the grotesque cartoon from a well-known Internet comic, or “rage comic,” called Forever Alone.
Barr had been unable to tear himself away from the Anonymous chat rooms, mesmerized as people joked about the “faggot” Barr and egged each other on to call his cell phone. His phone rang through the night. He answered it once to hear a woman’s voice say something inaudible and then hang up. There were a few silent voicemails and one person singing what sounded like “Never Gonna Give You Up,” the 1987 song by Rick Astley, homage to a popular prank in Anonymous to “rickroll” someone.
Barr had called in reinforcements. Penny Leavy went online to try her luck at sweet-talking the attackers. They were friendly and polite to her at first, but her requests were met with cold answers.
“Please do not release the HBGary emails,” she had pleaded. “There is private information there of clients.”
“Shouldn’t be sending emails you don’t want your mother reading,” Heyguise had said. And the emails, in any case, had already been published as a torrent on The Pirate Bay.
“Dozens of innocent people could have gone to jail,” Sabu said angrily. Before their attack, his newly formed small clique of Anons, who’d found each other amid hundreds of others in the Anonymous chat networks, had no idea that Barr’s research had been so flawed, or that his emails would be so easy to hack into. In fact, they still didn’t know that Barr had been proposing a dirty-tricks campaign against trade unions and WikiLeaks to a government agency and a major bank. They had been motivated by revenge and a desire, intensified by group psychology, to bully someone who seemed to deserve it. Once enough people trawled through Barr’s emails and found out what he had done to Hunton & Williams, the attack would suddenly look more than justified, to them almost necessary. Within the Anonymous community, Sabu, Kayla, Topiary, and the others would become heroic purveyors of vigilante justice. Barr had been fair game. He’d provoked a world where taunting, lying, and stealing was how everybody got by. A world that brought euphoric highs, fun, and fulfillment, with hardly any real-world consequences.
As Barr spent the next day fielding phone calls from journalists and trying, desperately, to pick up the pieces, Topiary, Sabu, Kayla and Tflow met up again in their secret chat room. They celebrated their accomplishments, relived what had happened, laughed, and felt invincible. They had “owned” a security company. In the back of their minds they knew that agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation would start trying to find them. But over time, members of the small team would conclude that they had worked together so well on Barr, they had to do it all over again on other targets, for lulz, for Anonymous, and for any other cause that came up along the way. No quarry would be too big: A storied media institution, an entertainment giant, even the FBI itself.
From “WE ARE ANONYMOUS: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency,” by Parmy Olson. On sale June 5, 2012. Excerpted with permission from Little, Brown and Co.
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