A British member of Anonymous is facing 18 months in prison after a guilty verdict in Southwark Crown Court in the UK last week for orchestrating attacks that knocked PayPal, Visa and Mastercard offline.
Christopher Weatherhead, 22, who used the online nickname “Nerdo,” was “a high-level operator,” prosecutors said. In addition to Weatherhead, Ashley Rhodes, 28, an Anonymous crony, will do seven months.
Another British citizen, Peter Gibson, 24, got a six-month suspended sentence for playing a lesser role in the website attacks. The fate of a fourth defendant, Jake Birchall, 18, will come at a later date.
Judge Peter Testar said the distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS) assaults organized by Weatherhead against PayPal and other companies weren’t money-making exercises, but were targeted and meant to cause damage.
“It’s intolerable that where an individual or a group disagrees with a company they should be able to interfere with its activity,” he said.
The attacks were part of “Operation Payback”, an Anonymous campaign that first targeted anti-piracy sites, music labels and movie studios but then moved against financial firms that refused to process donations to Wikileaks after the website published leaked U.S. diplomatic cables.
These DDoS assaults launched using the Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC), a tool favored by Anonymous and typically used by dozens if not hundreds of people at a time to overwhelm web servers. The hackers cost PayPal $5.5 million and forced it to take more than a hundred staff from parent firm eBay just to keep its website up and running while the attacks took place over a few weeks, officials said.
Weatherhead, of Northampton, said he was studying at the town’s university at the time, and claimed he only looked on while others launched the attacks in 2010. Nevertheless, the court convicted him of one count of conspiracy to impair the operation of computers in December.
Rhodes of Camberwell in London, Gibson from Hartlepool and Birchall of Chester had already pleaded guilty to the charge.
“In short, the crown says that Weatherhead is a high-level operator, an organizer, a purchaser at the top of the indictment,” Joel Smith, prosecuting, told the court.
Mark Ruffell, defending, said although Weatherhead was responsible for his own actions, the attacks in question ended up carried out by any number of the 11,000 people logged into the Anonymous chat server used to spread the word about the timings and targets of the DDoS attacks. He also argued Weatherhead’s first and main motive was youthful idealism and a belief that copyright was wrong.
“He’s not the first student, nor will he be the last, to try to change the world and come a cropper,” Ruffell said.
However, Judge Testar was satisfied that Weatherhead “had a main role.”
“It was apparent to me from those [chat server] logs that he was directing the activity of others. He gave encouragement, he gave technical advice, he nominated targets,” he said.
Smith said Rhodes and Gibson focued on “doxxing,” a process that involves dragging up and compiling as much information as possible about a target.
Documents recovered from Rhodes’ computer showed Weatherhead congratulated the pair on their research. However, the court accepted the idea Gibson did not play a part in the conspiracy during the time PayPal, Mastercard and Visa were under attack.
Gibson’s barrister told the court that her client’s involvement with the group was much shorter than the others and that he stopped chatting to the group when he realized they were going to attack the payment-processing sites.
“Gibson disconnected from the group when he realized they intended to attack financial targets, which he strongly disagreed with, so he broke off all contact. It was a purposeful act on his part and he never returned, he never went back,” she said.
Gibson’s realization he was doing wrong was why Judge Testar suspended his sentence.
Rhodes had “a more hands-on approach”, Smith told the court. “He was the only one with a LOIC on his computer and his conversation on IRC seemed to focus more on the attacks.”