A virtual battle: Hacker technology versus Church of Scientology

It sounds like the premise for a William Gibson cyberpunk novel: a group of rebel computer hackers have joined forces to overthrow what they consider a dangerous establishment. Through the anonymity of the Internet, they declare a war in which no blood is spilled but casualties abound. In this ‘cyberwar,’ they use every technique they can to hinder their target. They do not forgive. They do not forget. Incredibly, this premise is based on the undertakings of certain individuals living in the postmodern hell we call “now.” Their motive: annihilation. Their target: Scientology.

The group calls itself Anonymous, and claims to be made up of everyday people such as lawyers, parents and college students. Some speculate that the trigger for the group’s actions was the removal of an online video of a well-known, crazed actor bragging about Scientology’s expertise of the mind, according to wired.com.

What followed was a predictable retaliation from a hacker group, a multifaceted digital attack, with Anonymous citing censorship as the cause for its actions. The group took it a step further by declaring its omnipresence via YoQutube videos and posting their manifesto for all to see. The group calls its campaign against Scientology, “Project Chanology,” a campaign which has included jamming phone lines, hacking fax machines and distributing denial of service attacks. The latter causes a computer to be virtually useless in accessing a Web site.

“It’s no different than going to a Web site like cnn.com, but have thousands of people going into the Web site at the same time,” said Chris Lewis, president of USF’s Whitehatters Computer Security Club. “This causes the whole process to slow down and the computer can only respond so quickly to that many requests.”

The media coverage surrounding Anonymous’ activities deals with the group’s bold declaration of intentions. Anonymous’ disturbing videos on Youtube reflects its displeasure with Scientology, specifically Scientology’s “campaigns of misfortune, suppression of dissent and litigious nature.” The videos are filled with ominous threats, with an eerie, computerized voice narrating in the background.

“For the good of your followers, for the good of mankind and for our own enjoyment, we shall proceed to expel you from the Internet and systematically dismantle the Church of Scientology in its present form,” one video says.

Such a claim is not unique, as Scientology has faced attacks from hackers before. In June 1996, popular Web site ytmnd.com received cease-and-desist orders from the Church of Scientology because of the site’s mockery and criticism of the religion. In response, members of the Web site manipulated the Google search engine so that an unflattering Web site shows up as the third most relevant search result for Scientology. However, this is the first time a hacker group has gone through the trouble of maintaining a hostile public image while securing its anonymity.

According to switched.com, security experts who monitored the Web site attacks said that despite Anonymous’ claims, its attacks are amateurish by hacking standards. Those following the dramatic online battle have speculated that Anonymous is made up of nothing more than ‘script kiddies,’ a derogatory term for online misfits. However, Anonymous has managed to obtain secret training documents and distribute them to the masses on the Internet. Regardless of security experts’ downplaying of Anonymous’ actions, the group has managed to infiltrate several Church of Scientology computer networks to obtain information.

According to its video threats, Anonymous wants to disclose the secrets of Scientology to the public. The group has stated that it wants the public to know about “Operation Freakout,” “Operation Snow White” and “Scientology’s efforts to infiltrate the government of the United States of America.” Some might view the group’s actions as a reason to worry about personal computer safety, but Anonymous makes it clear that the average person is not itsintended target.

“We do not threaten you, the people,” says one of the group’s videos. “We threaten the lies, the corruption and the greed of the organization.”

In fact, Anonymous encourages the public to participate in its cause. The group has announced a planned mass protest in front of Scientology centers worldwide on Feb. 10.

Just what Anonymous hopes to accomplish is a mystery. Other than defacing Web sites, posting threats online and causing mischief, the group has yet to cause considerable damage to the Church of Scientology. If public awareness and fame are what Anonymous sought, then the media have given the group exactly what it wanted.

“I don’t know what they are going to achieve from this,” said Lewis. “The more you oppress somebody, the more they fight back.”