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Authorities Struggle to Keep Up as Hackers and Drug Gangs Collide

02/11/2011

In what may be a first, a group of Internet hackers have threatened a drug cartel, and in a very public way. Mexican drug gang “the Zetas”, who are particularly active in the Veracruz region, apparently kidnapped a hacker, and have been threatened by the cyber-criminal group that goes by the name “Anonymous”. In a short video posted online (English version here), Anonymous tell the Zetas that they are “tired” of the gang, whose activities include “kidnapping, stealing and extortion”, and allude to committing retaliatory violence. Anonymous threaten to reveal the identities of various journalists, police officers, and taxi drivers allied with the gang – effectively endangering those individuals, who would likely become subject to intimidation or violence from rival gangs – if their colleague is not freed by a November 4th deadline.

Internet hacking is not new, but is of increasing concern for governments, corporations and individuals alike. The news from Veracruz comes as representatives of sixty nations gather in London to discuss the challenges and opportunities the growth of the Internet brings. The London Conference on Cyberspace, organised by the FCO and ongoing today, sees world leaders engaging in dialogue on the rise of cyber crime, among other topics.

It is easy to see why governments are concerned. Summer 2011 saw Lulzsec, another anonymous hacking group, use fairly crude methods to successfully compromise the websites of Sony, the CIA, and the US Senate, inter alia. The BBC reported this week that the head of GCHQ – the UK government’s listening centre – believes that “the rate of cyber attacks on the government has reached a ‘disturbing’ level.”

But as authorities grapple with issues of privacy, jurisdiction and information security, some hackers are discovering a new, non-virtual battleground. In recent months and weeks, Anonymous have quarreled with the Zetas over disclosing one another’s identities. And, apparently prompted by words typed online, blood has actually been shed on the streets of Mexico.

Drug cartels and cyber criminals represent different ills, but both operate on the fringes of society and are similar in their facelessness. Indeed, both represent significant headaches for law enforcement, and their lack of respect for international borders means governments struggle to counter them when acting alone.

The two clandestine groups concerned – Anonymous and the Zetas – are effectively enacting their dispute in plain sight. Such a clash is something of a first, given the secrecy surrounding both types of activity, but much of the detail nonetheless remains secret. The video declines to name the abductee, for example, and authorities in Mexico claim to know nothing about the kidnapping.

In targeting government and corporate websites, as Anonymous do, cyber crime can often shine a light on poor security, and in some cases lead to improved confidentiality for the ordinary Internet user. It remains to be seen whether Anonymous’s recent video will do anything to curb drug crime – this seems rather unlikely – but it does signal an unprecedented move into what could be termed “terrorism” for this particular group. In the video, released last month, Anonymous implies that, if the Zetas fail to release their colleague by this Friday’s deadline, the hackers will consider blowing up the “cars, houses, bars and whorehouses” of the drug cartel’s allies.

Despite these militant overtones, Anonymous have styled themselves as “the good guys” – crusaders against drug crime, which is rife in the region – but their mysterious identity and Internet activities lead many to question their motives. Zetas’ treatment of “ordinary bloggers” who post information about their crimes, is undoubtedly of concern to Anonymous members. In September, a woman was decapitated by the Zetas, apparently for posting details about them on a social-networking site. That same month, two others were hanged, apparently as a “message” to would-be Internet informants.

As this decidedly 21st-century conflict plays out in the unlikely realm of Twitter (hashtag #opcartel), those in Veracruz speculate on how, and indeed if, it will come to an end. Hackers’ use of the Internet is well documented – as is that of organised-crime groups – but as they move their battlefield from computers to the streets, authorities will have to grapple with becoming more than just bystanders to these worrying activities.