How A British Intelligence Agency Targeted Hacktivist Groups

A special team within the GCHQ launched a cyberattack against hacktivist groups according to documents leaked by Edward Snowden.
Posted at 12:07 PM, Feb 05, 2014

​​If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

According to a new round of documents leaked by Edward Snowden and obtained by NBC News, British intelligence agency GCHQ used DDoS attacks against hacktivist groups in 2011.

A DDoS attack is a common tactic used by hackers to bring down a site or service. A large group of computers controlled through the use of malware flood the site with traffic, eventually overloading the server. (Via YouTube / Radware)

The documents list several hacktivist targets, including Anonymous, LulzSec and the Syrian Electronic Army.

NBC reports a special team within the GCHQ, known as the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group, launched operation "Rolling Thunder." The operation targeted known hacktivist chat rooms with DDoS attacks.

And when DDoS attacks weren't enough, The Verge reports the British team used intimidation tactics. "JTRIG operatives used Facebook, Twitter, and other online networks to warn suspected hacktivists that 'DDOS and hacking is illegal, please cease and desist.'" 

The tactic seemed to work — the documents claim nearly 80 percent of warned users were no longer in the chat rooms a month later.

And according to GigaOm, the intelligence group used these chat rooms to go after suspected hacktivists behind attacks on government websites and identity fraud.

Although the attacks led to several arrests and a decrease in hacktivist activity, not everyone is in support of the GCHQ's methods — which don't appear to make a distinction between hacktivists on the one hand and their supporters on the other. One critic told NBC:

"Punishing thousands of people, who are engaging in their democratic right to protest, because a couple people committed vandalism is … an appalling example of overreacting in order to squash dissent." (Via NBC)

Despite criticism, the GCHQ says it operated within the law and "in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework."