UPDATE, 17:00 6/5/2011: Anonymous issues response to NATO report. See article here.
NATO leaders have been warned that WikiLeaks-loving 'hacktivist' collective Anonymous could pose a threat to member states' security, following recent attacks on the US Chamber of Commerce and defence contractor HBGary - and promise to 'persecute' its members.
In a toughly-worded draft report to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, General Rapporteur Lord Jopling claims that the loose-knit, leaderless group is "becoming more and more sophisticated", and "could potentially hack into sensitive government, military, and corporate files".
The group demonstrated its capabilities in February, says the report, when it hacked into US-based defence contractor HBGary. Documents stolen in the attack lifted the lid on the US military's plans to use social network surveillance software, code-named 'Metal Gear' by the online hive-mind, which could control an army of fake profiles, collecting data from disparate sites and piecing together an individual's identity by analysing linguistic traits and other details.
Describing the rise of the group from its beginnings on internet picture message board 4chan, via campaigns against the Church of Scientology and, more recently, in support of whistle-blowing website Wikileaks, the report continues: "Today, the ad hoc international group of hackers and activists is said to have thousands of operatives and has no set rules or membership."
The report goes on to lay out a stark warning to the group's nameless participants:
"It remains to be seen how much time Anonymous has for pursuing such paths. The longer these attacks persist the more likely countermeasures will be developed, implemented, the groups will be infiltrated and perpetrators persecuted."
Reacting to the extraordinary threat in a post on micro-blogging site Twitter, Birgitta Jónsdóttir, an MP in NATO member Iceland, said she was "seeking input". Jónsdóttir claimed the report of "falsifies facts" about WikiLeaks - for whom she was formerly an activist - and Bradley Manning, the US Army private accused of leaking the US government's so-called 'Cablegate' diplomatic memos.
NATO's threat follows a recent toughening of governmental stances against hacking on both sides of the Atlantic, with major NATO players the US and the UK outlining their strategies for what appears a forthcoming age of cyber-warfare.
A policy document released last month and signed by President Obama issued an oblique threat of military retaliation against hackers, if legal and political measures prove fruitless.
"The United States will ensure that the risks associated with attacking or exploiting our networks vastly outweigh the potential benefits," the document said.
Yesterday, the UK's coalition government unveiled plans to recruit 'hundreds' of cyber-soldiers into a new defence task force aimed at combating online attacks.
"Our forces depend on computer networks, both in the UK and in operations around the world. But our adversaries present an advance and rapidly developing threat to these networks," the MoD said in the statement.
The UK government's statement didn't name who those adversaries were. In the light of Lord Jopling's report, perhaps it is now a little clearer just who they may have in mind.