Earlier this month, a federal grand jury indicted 13 alleged members of the international hacker collective Anonymous for conspiring to disrupt the websites of trade groups, credit card companies and Congress. One of the indicted is 27-year-old Missoula resident Wade C. Williams.
The indictments come as part of a broad effort by the Department of Justice and the FBI to disrupt and disband Anonymous, which gained notoriety in September 2010 after it launched a campaign of online sabotage. The campaign, called "Operation Payback," began in retaliation to the film and music industry's harassment of The Pirate Bay, a file-sharing website dedicated to flouting copyright privileges.
Anonymous' first targets were the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America, two trade groups that support stringent copyright laws. The hackers flooded their websites with vast amounts of data in what is called a distributed denial of service attack, effectively crippling the sites for hours.
In December 2010, Operation Payback switched gears. The whistleblower website WikiLeaks had recently released vast quantities of classified information to the American public. The federal government got spooked. It began to put pressure on credit card companies and websites like PayPal to stop processing donations on behalf of WikiLeaks. The companies complied, and WikiLeaks' coffers dried up.
According to the indictment, this is when Williams, who operated online under the moniker "TheMiNd," helped organize an attack against the beleaguered website's foes.
"We need to be hitting the companies that are subverting wikileaks ...," wrote Williams in an alleged online conversation with fellow Anonymous activists. He encouraged "members of the conspiracy" to help him launch an online attack against MasterCard and Visa, which had participated in the banking blockade against WikiLeaks.
The Anonymous hackers brought down the MasterCard and Visa websites on Dec. 8, 2010, allegedly costing MasterCard "at least $5,000" in damages.
The accused are being charged with felony conspiracy under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Lawyers fighting the DOJ prosecutions say authorities are trying to make an example of Anonymous in order to suppress online protest.
"I see this crackdown as a 'bodies on pikes' kind of thing," says Jay Leiderman, an attorney who represents Anonymous defendants in other cases. "If you pass this way, if you dare look at a computer in a way that is not pre-approved, we shall impale you as we impaled them."
Williams recently traveled to Virginia to appear in court. He and his co-defendants each face five years in federal prison.