Source: Christian Science Monitor

The cyber attacks against corporations that move against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appear to be escalating.

After bringing down his Swiss bank’s website last week, and MasterCard’s site Wednesday, a loose coalition of hackers calling themselves Operation Payback brought down Visa’s website Wednesday afternoon.

Companies are fighting back. In the latest salvo, Facebook and Twitter both pulled Operation Payback’s websites Wednesday afternoon, cutting key lines of communication with the “troops” in this cyber-battle.

What damage remains is hard to assess, as MasterCard and Visa continue to try to re-establish full functioning of their websites. If nothing else, Operation Payback has drawn attention to the vulnerability of many companies to this sort of cyber-attack. As President Obama said in May 2009, “This cyber threat is one of the most serious economic and national security challenges we face as a nation…. This status quo is no longer acceptable – not when there’s so much at stake. We can and we must do better.”

For the attackers, the real benefit may be attracting attention to their cause.

Where did these so-called cyberwars begin?

Last week, WikiLeaks announced the planned release of thousands of classified government cables. Their website was quickly knocked out, presumably by those who didn’t want the material released, but WikiLeaks shored up their digital defenses and proceeded.

Governments, media, and others reacted with shock to the leaked cables, and responded by accusing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange of assorted crimes, closing his accounts, and calling for his extradition. Private companies got involved as well: stopped hosting WikiLeaks, PayPal stopped allowing money transfers to him at the urging of the State Department, and this week MasterCard and Visa followed suit.

Angry supporters of WikiLeaks saw these moves as attempted censorship, and announced that they would “fight for freedom.” A group of hackers collectively called “Anonymous,” photographed only in Guy Fawkes masks, stepped into the fray.

“Mastercard, Visa, Paypal, Amazon all betray America by betraying Free Speech,” wrote “Guy Fawkes” on the Operation Payback Facebook page, early Wednesday morning. “You will all be dealt with. Anonymous is on your case. WikiLeaks cannot be silenced!”

Anonymous responded to Assange’s real-world challenges with cybersphere assaults against the various organizations.

Anonymous’s offensive division, known as Operation Payback, controlled a digital “cannon” that could blast websites of their choosing through “distributed denial-of-service” (DDoS) attacks. Operation Payback had previously targeted groups that tried to prevent the illegal download of movies, music, and games, as well as the Church of Scientology (no relation to the Church of Christ, Scientist, that publishes The Christian Science Monitor) and KISS performer Gene Simmons.