MONTREAL - Digital dissenters known as hacktivists have developed a track record for disruption and attracting attention and are now considered one of the three main groups of attackers online, says security software company Websense.

Websense prefers not to talk specifically about hacker groups like Anonymous or Lulzsec, but highlighted the general rise of these groups in recent years.

Hacktivists use the web for dissent rather than holding public protests, said Patrik Runald, director of security research at Websense Security Labs.

"If you look at the attacks that these hacktivists groups have done it's typically because they don't agree with something or they want to embarrass an organization," Runald said from San Diego, Calif.

The work of hacker collective Anonymous has spawned no shortage of headlines.

Anonymous has taken credit for such acts as releasing the personal information of more than 4,000 bank executives on a U.S. government website.

It also reposted personal and professional information of members of the American Westboro Baptist Church after they tweeted they would be picketing the funerals of the 20 children who were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Hacktivists join cyber thieves and sophisticated attackers, including some state-sponsored agents, as the three main types of online attackers, he said.

"You can get a lot of attention by disrupting financial systems or by hacking into well-known organizations," Runald said.

But hacktivism isn't as bad as it was a year or two ago, Runald said, adding hacker groups may be picking their causes more carefully.

"But those same actors are still out there. It's not that there has been a ton of arrests. Even if there had been, there's always people to take their place," he said.

"On the Internet, you can make it a lot harder for authorities to track down who you are."

Last spring, a variety of Quebec government websites were hacked by self-described Anonymous activists due to the government's anti-protest law directed at student demonstrators protesting tuition hikes. Anonymous also took credit for publishing the personal information of a number of Formula One car-race ticket holders during the student protests.

In addition, Anonymous has previously claimed responsibility for attacks on credit card companies Visa Inc. and MasterCard Inc. and eBay Inc.'s PayPal.

Carleton University associate professor Anil Somayaji said different groups of people at different times have used the name "Anonymous."

"There's no organization that you can call up and say, 'Let me talk to Anonymous,'" said Somayaji, who teaches at Carleton's School of Computer Science in Ottawa.

"That's what makes large organizations nervous because there's no well defined way to stop it. There's no one to target.

"The Internet gives small groups of people leverage in various ways."

Efforts to unmask these groups will get them angry and they will "come after you," he added.

Runald noted the example of U.S. security firm HBGary International and its dealings with Anonymous. HBGary had compiled names of members of Anonymous in 2011 and was preparing to go public when it was hacked by the group and its servers were broken into, e-mails were published and data destroyed.

Canada's spy agency has said Anonymous isn't just a thorn in the side of the powerful, but the new model for digital hacktivism.

A declassified report from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has said although hacktivism — a blend of hacker smarts and social activism — has existed for years, it is only now that conditions have allowed such groups to bloom.

"Anonymous is the face of modern hacktivism," the spy agency report said.

Runald said he doesn't consider WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange a hacktivist because to the "best of our knowledge he isn't the guy who hacks into anything;" information is sent to him from hackers. WikiLeaks published some 250,000 secret U.S. State Department cables in December 2010.

Runald noted that when an organization has been hit by hacktivists, hacktivists don't keep it a secret.

"They will talk about it. You don't do a protest in silence because what's the point."

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