The cast of the drama could have come from the keyboard of Swedish noir crime novelist Stieg Larsson: a group of rambunctious hackers, a secretive private security company, a powerful Washington law firm with notable clients, and the bête noire of bureaucrats, WikiLeaks.
The opening act came in December, when WikiLeaks published a trove of State Department cables. Outraged lawmakers called for companies like MasterCard, PayPal, and Visa to cut their ties to the site. The companies did so, which prompted a group of hackers to hit back. The group, which goes by the moniker "Anonymous," launched a series of cyber attacks against those three companies and others, in what the hackers dubbed "Operation Payback." U.S. and British authorities arrested several suspected Anonymous members, and the FBI said it executed some 40 search warrants in the case.
Enter Aaron Barr, the chief executive of the security firm HBGary Federal, who was quoted in the Financial Times a week after the arrests, saying he had infiltrated Anonymous and discovered the identities of some members.
Barr's braggadocio didn't sit well with the hacker collective, who then apparently broke into HBGary Federal's computer system and stole tens of thousands of E-mails and posted them on the Internet, hijacked Barr's Twitter account, posted his supposed home address and social security number, and defaced HBGary Federal's website. "Let us teach you a lesson you'll never forget: don't mess with Anonymous," the group said in a statement posted along with the stolen materials.
HBGary Federal posted a statement on their website saying that they were the victim of a cyber attack by Anonymous, which "stole proprietary and confidential information." The company has also said that E-mails posted online may have been altered by the hackers.
The story could have ended there, but when journalists and others examined the stolen E-mails, they uncovered evidence of proposals for attacking critics of the Chamber of Commerce and Bank of America. The schemes included plans to leak forged documents to critics that would undermine them publicly. Neither Bank of American nor the Chamber appears to have had direct contact with HBGary Federal, rather the proposals were submitted to the K Street law and lobbying firm Hunton & Williams, which represents Bank of America and apparently wanted to do additional business with the Chamber of Commerce. The firm declined to comment for this story. The Chamber vehemently denied soliciting or receiving HBGary Federal's proposals, which it called "abhorrent."
One of the proposals included in the E-mails appeared to deal with Bank of America's WikiLeaks problem. Bank of America has denied soliciting the proposal. For the past few months, WikiLeaks has been threatening publicly to post documents it has obtained related to the bank. The HBGary Federal proposal included undermining the credibility of WikiLeaks by giving it false documents to publish and intimidating financial donors and journalists supportive of WikiLeaks, like Salon's Glenn Greenwald.
It also proposed numerous strategies for gathering personal information about critics, including trolling social networking sites, like Facebook, and creating fake profiles to solicit additional information from opponents. Greenwald, an attorney and blogger, wrote this month that "this should be taken seriously, despite how ignorant, trite, and laughably shallow is the specific leaked anti-WikiLeaks proposal. As creepy and odious as this is, there's nothing unusual about these kinds of smear campaigns." Meanwhile, HBGary Federal continues to feel repercussions from the episode. Employees from the company have received threats of violence, according to a company statement. The threats have prompted the company to "cancel all talks," and "remove our booth" from an upcoming trade show.