Hacker group Anonymous is no match for North Korea

June 27, 2013

North Korean students work in a computer lab. (David Guttenfelder/AP)

Anonymous, the informal hacker collective that often targets groups or countries it sees as enemies of Internet freedom, has gone after everyone from MasterCard to the Vatican. But the group seems little match for the hermit kingdom: after two attempts, most recently on Tuesday and Wednesday, Anonymous appears to have largely failed to infiltrate North Korea's systems.

The latest attack was planned to coincide with the anniversary of the Korean War, on Tuesday. Anonymous said its goals were to obtain North Korean documents on the country's weapons and government officials; to connect North Korea's highly regulated intranet to the wider Internet, thus allowing North Korean citizens to finally connect to the outside world. Anonymous even said it would access nuclear weapons sites.

From what outside analysts can tell, though, Anonymous doesn't seem to have accomplished these goals. Its attacks, perhaps owing to the diffusion of North Korea's external Internet presence, appear to have ended up defacing some obscure Chinese Web sites and some high-profile South Korean sites (including the president's official site). In the confusion, some Anonymous hackers in South Korea took friendly fire from American counterparts. It was all a bit of a mess – and this despite the fact that their target is one of the poorest countries in the world.

Anonymous had claimed, back in April, to have successfully hacked into North Korea's walled-off intranet. As colleague Caitlin Dewey explained, that was extremely unlikely; the North Korean Web is physically separated from the rest of the Internet. And Anonymous's evidence of a successful hack – a series of names and e-mail addresses purportedly belonging to North Korean propagandists – was actually a list of Chinese names.

Some hackers, presumably members of Anonymous, quickly claimed to possess the names of 2 million North Korean workers' party members and 40,000 U.S. troops on the peninsula. That's an odd claim, as North Korea scholar Marcus Noland pointed out, given that there are only 28,500 U.S. troops there. Anonymous has claimed other information gets, but has not proven them, and analysts don't seem convinced.

The failed hacks are a reminder that North Korea has demonstrated, against all odds, its remarkable ability to seal itself off from a world very, very eager to peer in. This doesn't just include hacker collectives like Anonymous: it's not hard to find current and former U.S. intelligence officials who concede that they have very little solid information about its inner workings. Partly this is about North Korea's better-than-you-might think technological capabilities. Partly it's about the country's willingness to forgo the vast economic benefits of integration that have long since tempted most countries, or at least individual people within them, to connect to the outside world. But it's also about the country's ideological stakes in information isolation: the more time passes, the more South Korea's economy grows relative to the North and the greater an interest North Korea leaders have in making sure its people learn as little as possible about life on the outside. Incentives that powerful tend to be effective – more effective, even, than otherwise successful hackers.

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Max Fisher | June 27, 2013