Julian Assange is a man who has made enemies. The editor-in-chief and creator of WikiLeaks is fighting battles on all fronts: legally, financially, personally and professionally, and even now sits in a jail cell in England following his arrest earlier today, after Sweden issued an arrest warrant stemming from four charges of sexual offences, including one of rape. But Assange is not without his allies, either. One of the more potentially powerful groups to throw in its support is the website 4chan, and its some of its members that are collectively known as Anonymous.  The group that is either famous or infamous depending on your point of view, have begun a new campaign to support WikiLeaks and its creator that they are calling “Operation Avenge Assange”.

Operation Avenge Assange is a systematic attack that will target groups that Anonymous has deemed to have essentially treated Assange unfairly.  The first target on the list is PayPal, which reports that cyber attacks have already begun.

Identifying Anonymous

4chan is at its core simply an imageboard website where people go to talk about everything from politics, to hacking, to anime. It has spawned several of the most popular internet memes of our day, including lol cats, Rickrolling, as well as popularizing several viral videos by encouraging members to view and share them. 4chan is also the launch pad to the group Anonymous, an Internet based group of hackers and protesters that organizes to attack pre-determined targets through various means.

The most famous of these attacks have all been to serve what the group considers a greater good. In 2007, Anonymous was instrumental in leading to the arrest of Chris Forcand, an alleged Internet predator and pedophile. Anonymous has also gone after several other accused child molesters, but its most famous confrontation began in 2008, when the group began a global protest against the Church of Scientology called “Project Chanology”

Project Chanology began after an internal Scientology video starring Tom Cruise was leaked to the internet by an unknown source.  It was not exactly the most flattering of videos to the star, as his in-jokes about “SPs” (suppressive person) and KSW (keeping scientology working) helped hurry Cruise down the list of most sought after actors. Surprising no one, the notoriously litigious Church of Scientology threatened legal action and argued that the video was a violation of copyright, before demanding that it be removed from YouTube.

In response, Anonymous claimed that this was a form of internet censorship, and began a series of distributed denial of services (DDoS) attacks on Scientology websites, which entails several systems flooding the bandwidth of the targeted system and forcing them to crash. The group also began prank calls and faxing in black pages. Soon physical protests were held, with protesters wearing the same “Guy Fawkes” masks worn by the hero in the movie and comic book V for Vendetta, claiming that they wished to remain anonymous to avoid Scientology’s “fair game” policy — which claims that a group labeled as a critic of the Church may be targeted for harassment and punishment by any and all means possible. According to Anonymous, the point of the protests was to remove Scientology from the internet completely, protect the freedom of speech, and prove the financial exploitation of the Church.  Scientology fought back and claimed that Anonymous was a group of cyber terrorists, and claimed the attacks were religious hate crimes.  The protests spread around the globe and went on for over a year.

Anonymous is also credited for joining with the website “The Pirate Bay” to launch the website “Anonymous Iran” following the 2009 Iranian Presidential Elections, and subsequent demonstrations. The website was designed as a way for Iranians to anonymously share and receive information with the world that would otherwise have been censored.

Opponents however argue that not all of Anonymous’ protests are are quite as morally fueled. The group has also been criticized for uploading hundreds of pornographic videos on YouTube, many of which were disguised as family-friendly and children’s videos, to protest removal of music from YouTube. The group also released the personal information of a California teen McKay Hatch, who founded the anti-profanity “No Cussing Club.” Hatch’s family has since claimed that they have received death threats, although no evidence of violence has been documented.

Operation Avenge Assange

Despite the many critics Anonymous has gained over the years, the group has always maintained a fairly stringent policy of attacking only groups that it perceives to be violating personal rights or legal freedoms, so it isn’t a huge surprise to see their next project will be in defense of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.

“While we don’t have much of an affiliation with WikiLeaks, we fight for the same reasons. We want transparency and we counter censorship. The attempts to silence WikiLeaks are long strides closer to a world where we can not say what we think and are unable to express our opinions and ideas.” A notice on the 4chan website read.

“We can not let this happen. This is why our intention is to find out who is responsible for this failed attempt at censorship. This is why we intend to utilize our resources to raise awareness, attack those against and support those who are helping lead our world to freedom and democracy.”

And thus began “Operation Avenge Assange”. The first stated goal of the operation is to begin a series of DDoS attacks on PayPal. The financial company recently announced that it would be severing ties with WikiLeaks, and would no longer be used to accept donations for the site. The blow was a severe one to WikiLeaks, which exists primarily off of the donations of its visitors.

Anonymous’ plan also encourages people to vote for Assange as Time’s 2010 Man of the Year, not necessarily to win, but to raise his profile. 4chan held a similar campaign in 2009 to elect the website’s founder, Christopher “moot” Poole, as Time’s “Most Influential Person in the World”.  Poole won the internet-based poll handily.

The Operation further asks for people to continue to spread and back up the WikiLeaks documents, voice their support on social-networking sites, distribute relevant cables to members’ home areas, complain to the local governments, and help organize and participate in protests.

High-profile hitlist

Although PayPal was the only specific target listed, also shown in the announcement message are three other images with lines through them indicating that they are also scheduled to receive Anonymous’ attention. After PayPal, the next image is Interpol, which issued the arrest warrant for Assange. The third is Julia Gillard, the Prime Minister of Australia, who accused Assange of illegal conduct following the release of the documents, to which Assange said he felt like his country had thrown him to the wolves. The fourth and final image is Sarah Palin, who claimed that Assange should be hunted down in the same manner that al Queda leaders have been hunted down. No word on what — if anything — Anonymous may have planned for these three.

UPDATE: It appears that Anonymous has struck the first blow. Ars Technica is reporting that the Swiss Bank PostFinance’s website has been attacked, and been offline for over 17 hours. PostFinance recently froze Assange’s assets after claiming to have discovered that Assange gave “false information” on the initial application after claiming a Swiss residence, a prerequisite to open a Post Finance account. Assange responded that the address was his lawyer’s, and that he was seeking Swiss residency. The Bank then closed his account and is holding over 31,000 Euros ($41,000) of his money, but will not allow him to use its services.  Anonymous fired back that PostFinance was bowing to governmental pressure, and the cyber attacks began.

PayPal has also reported several attacks, but so far only the PayPal blog has been forced offline.

The WikiLeaks website has also faced a steady stream of DDoS attacks since it was first announced that it would be releasing the newest batch of 250,000 cables. Even now the site remains down. Anonymous’ site has also faced several attacks, and is also down for the moment.

While the courts may spend the next several months and years fighting the legalities of the WikiLeaks documents, and Assange remains in jail until his hearing on December 14, a digital war over the WikiLeaks appears to be raging in cyberspace.