On Friday morning I learned to my shock that Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), the Crystal Palace of Russell Group universities, was hacked by the internationally renowned online activist group, Anonymous.
The group’s notoriety comes hand-in-hand with its mantra to expose hypocrisy, tackle corruption and unveil world secrets in an inflammatory ‘doing it for the lulz’ manner, much to the ire of the super secret government organisations and corporations scattered across the globe.
So why have the hacktivists suddenly decided to target QMUL?
The Guardian first broke the news (07/01) that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had been handing out six figure grants to individual PhD students at several institutions (confirmed to be six) for cyberspace-related research.
At the University of Exeter, the MoD has been funding research into “the events of the Arab spring, the London student protests or the summer 2011 riots in English towns and cities” and how these “show the importance of understanding synchronised collective actions driven by online interactions.” The main interest? To “deliver new and innovative ways to understand and influence online behaviour.”
Mark Levine, who is supervising the Exeter PhD student, told the Guardian: “I think [the MoD] are interested in online influence. That is why they have put money into this kind of stuff. They want to know what influences people, when and how.”
At King’s College London (KCL), research has mostly centred around targeting Anonymous itself, a project which involves researchers interacting with members of the hacktivist group, addressing “known unknowns”, and attempting to understand its motives and politics.
Meanwhile, Queen Mary spiked interest among members of the group for its projects which ranged from ‘cross-cultural attitudes and the shaping of online behaviour in crisis situations‘ to ‘the analysis of crowd behaviour through ad-hoc mobile sensors‘. Queen Mary is also said to be interested in ‘ways technology might be used to exert influence‘.
As you can read in Anonymous’ press release, “We rolled a dice, to see which of these academic institutions was deserving of some of our attention. Queen Mary’s [sic] won.”
Their definition of ‘winning’, however, may differ from Queen Mary’s. Anonymous proceeded, for two weeks, to breach the QMUL network and steal a sizeable chunk of data – including the map of the IT network, grades, evaluations, and students’ personal details – a small sample of which they leaked alongside their press release.
The Daily Dot, who first broke the news, claims to have spoken to a member of the hacktivist group.
The source said: “The institution is woefully underprepared for the kind of attention working with the Ministry of Defence can cause.” So far, so Queen Mary, adding: “If we are on their systems, anyone else could be as well.” Anonymous still has control of Queen Mary’s entire computer network.
So the attack was made to raise awareness about security frailties in such institutions which receive funding from the MoD for research. But also to ‘send a message’ to such institutions which intend on studying “the kind of tech that has made CIA funded corporation Palantir such an indispensable asset to US intelligence.”
Anonymous’ definitive reasoning: “Queen Mary’s [sic] and the other universities should be much more interested in protecting their own data, and the data of their paying students, than in analyzing the data of others.”
Meanwhile, an animatronic University spokeswoman, who sounded as if she’d had her reset button flicked, monotonously told me: “We are investigating the claims. We have informed the police.”
I have asked whether the university would be able to clarify its research interests, and its relationship with the MoD. I’m still waiting for a response.