By Brian Messenger
---- — METHUEN — Mayor Stephen Zanni said Methuen IT workers are on alert after the hacker activist group Anonymous attempted to infiltrate city and school computers in retaliation for last week’s terror-threat arrest of a high school student.
“We’re keeping on top of it now,” said Zanni yesterday in an interview with The Eagle-Tribune. “So far there’s been no damage done.”
On Monday night, Zanni told the City Council that Anonymous “tried hacking into our computers” as a means of retaliation for the May 1 arrest of Methuen High School senior Cameron Dambrosio, 18, of Glen Avenue.
Methuen police say Dambrosio threatened on Facebook to outdo the Boston Marathon bombings. Charged with communicating a terrorist threat, Dambrosio is being held without bail in Middleton jail pending the outcome of a dangerousness hearing tomorrow.
Anonymous is a global “hacktivist” collective that has taken credit for past cyber-attacks on government agencies, private companies and others, including the FBI, U.S. Department of Justice, Motion Picture Association of America and Westboro Baptist Church.
Zanni said yesterday that both municipal and School Department computers were targeted by the group.
“They tried to get into the system,” said Zanni. “Every department in the city had to be looked at.”
A call to Methuen IT Director Kingsley Lough yesterday was not returned. Methuen police Chief Joseph Solomon declined comment.
The mayor said he personally received three threatening emails on Friday “stating what we did (with Dambrosio) was wrong.” When pressed on how he knew Anonymous was behind the emails, Zanni said only that “it was told to me that’s who the group was.”
Zanni would not divulge any details about the content of the emails or who sent them.
“They weren’t good,” said Zanni. “There were threats made.”
‘They don’t want Big Brother’
While the city of Methuen may seem an odd target for Anonymous, which has breached the computer networks of some of the world’s most powerful institutions, one local expert said he isn’t surprised.
“They don’t want Big Brother, they want free speech on the Internet,” said Xinwen Fu, director of the Center for Cyber Forensics at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “They might see this as a free speech issue. I think that’s the reason.”
News of Dambrosio’s arrest went viral last week, thanks in part to popular gossip websites like Perez Hilton and Gawker. On those sites, headlines suggested Dambrosio was arrested for rapping about the Boston Marathon bombings.
In reality, Dambrosio was arrested for writing a violent Facebook post that was quickly reported to Methuen school officials.
“So when you see me (expletive) go insane and make the news, make the paper, and the (expletive) federal house of horror known as the White House, don’t (expletive) cry or be worried because all YOU people (expletive) caused this (expletive),” reads a portion of the post, which was included in a police report. “(Expletive) a boston bombing wait till u see the (expletive) I do, I’ma be famous for rapping, and beat every murder charge that comes across me!”
Police have said Dambrosio admitted to writing the post after his arrest. His charge carries a penalty of 20 years in jail. And while the threat was not directed at a specific person or target, it was still a general threat of violence and terrorism, officials said.
Fu said Anonymous has been widely known for several years and is considered a real threat in the computer security community. Fu also said that small cities and towns would generally be considered “easy targets” for the hacking collective.
“Once the code is running on your computer, your computer is their’s,” said Fu. “They are very capable. Those hackers can sometimes be very advanced.”
Adding to the security issue in Methuen is Zanni’s vocal dissatisfaction with the municipal IT department.
Zanni spent much of 2012 — his first year in office — advocating for the replacement of the four-employee department with a private firm. But after a series of fits and starts, the mayor’s reorganization plan was ultimately voted down in January by the City Council.
Yesterday, Zanni suggested Methuen would be better equipped to handle the hacker threat with privatized IT services.
“At this point they’re able to handle it,” said Zanni. “If we had outsourced prior to this, we might be better off.”