May 19, 2011: Groups that back political reform in China are calling on the United States for help in defending their web sites that they believe are being shut down by Chinese Cyber War attacks. This form of political censorship is increasingly common. It happens so much that only attacks on prominent organizations get any mention in the media. Many less well-known outfits just get silenced on the web.
Some of this online thuggery is apparently the work of mercenaries. Two years ago, Armenia accused neighbor Azerbaijan of hiring Internet criminal hackers to cripple Armenian access to the Internet. Armenia and Azerbaijan have been at each other's throats for nearly two decades because of a land dispute. Although Azerbaijan has more people and money (because of oil), the Armenians are better soldiers, and the dispute has been stalemated. Then someone in the Azerbaijan government got familiar with Internet criminal gangs, which have been quite popular in Russia and Eastern Europe, mainly because of either no laws against Internet based crime, or lax (or just inept) law enforcement.
Some of the Internet gangs have made deals with local police, especially in countries that still have a secret police force (like Russia, Belarus, or Azerbaijan), to do Internet based dirty deeds (spying, attacking political foes, and so on). Apparently the Azerbaijan operation was less discreet than most, or the Internet gangsters less capable of covering their tracks. In any event, such Internet gangs are quite numerous. While there are thousands of independent Internet criminals, an increasing number operate in groups (most small, some fairly large, all members usually operating from a different location.) Some of these groups are part of more conventional gangs, that can provide more traditional muscle when needed.
Most of the Internet criminal income is based on building and running botnets (networks of illegally controlled PCs, yours might be one of them and you wouldn't know it). Botnets are big, and illegal, business. There's big money in botnets, which can be used to spew spam, launch a widespread search for secret files, or shut down websites with a DDOS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack.
At any time, 6-10 million PCs worldwide are infiltrated by hackers via a secretly planted "Trojan Horse" program that takes control. This turns these PCs into "zombies". This has become a big business, with each zombie PC in a botnet producing $300-$500 a year, or more, for those who control them. This is after you deduct the cost of replacing zombies that are detected and cleaned (of their secret software). Botnets of 100,000 or more PCs are common, and some have over a million. Many of them are for rent.
Countries like Myanmar and Mauritania have also been caught using botnets to attack political opponents, by shutting down their websites and sneaking in and stealing data (member and contributor lists, correspondence and planning documents). Many other nations have not been caught, but stand accused. Many unscrupulous web users hire Internet criminals to launch DDOS attacks. These can be carried out for less than a hundred dollars, and even hard core on-line gamers have rented botnets to knock opponents off line for a while.
China has no need of mercenaries, as it maintains a large force of full-time hackers, and an even larger number of part-timers.