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UK student in dock over Anonymous £3.5m PayPal attack

Denies charge relating to Operation Payback campaign

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The trial of a British university student accused of participating in attacks by hacktivist collective Anonymous against the websites of PayPal and others has begun in London.

Prosecutors say Christopher Weatherhead, 22, was studying at Northampton University when he allegedly took part in "Operation Payback", the packet-flooding campaign against financial services firms that suspended payment processing of donations to WikiLeaks after the whistle-blowing site began publishing leaked US diplomatic cables in late 2010. Weatherhead denies one count of conspiracy to impair the operation of computers between 1 August 2010 and 27 January last year arising from the alleged computer hacking attacks.

A jury at Southwark Crown Court were told Ashley Rhodes, 27, from Camberwell, south London; Peter Gibson, 24, from Hartlepool; and an 18-year-old male had already pleaded guilty to the charge, the BBC reports.

Sandip Patel, prosecuting, said that attacks by Anonymous hackers had cost PayPal £3.5m ($5.5m) and forced it to draft in 100 staff from parent firm eBay in order to keep its website up and running during a series of sustained attacks over several weeks. The payment-processing firm was also obliged to buy additional hardware and services in the aftermath of the attacks. These DDoS assaults were launched using the Low Orbit Ion Canon (LOIC) packet-flooding tool favoured by Anonymous at the time, The Guardian adds.

Patel said the Operation Payback attacks started out targeting firms known to oppose copyright piracy (such as Ministry of Sound nightclub, the British Recorded Music Industry and the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry) before switching targets to concentrate DDoS assaults on payment processing firms such as PayPal and MasterCard - which had pulled the plug on WikiLeaks, The Daily Telegraph reports.

Weatherhead, who allegedly used the online handle Nerdo, was alleged to have been among a small group of leaders on an IRC channel (AnonOps) used by Anonymous that selected targets, according to the prosecution.

"It is the prosecution case that Christopher Weatherhead, the defendant, is a cyber-attacker and that he, and others like him, waged a sophisticated and orchestrated campaign of online attacks that paralysed a series of targeted computer systems belonging to companies to which they took issue with, for whatever reason, and those attacks caused unprecedented harm," Patel added, the BBC reports.

He claimed Anonymous was a group that represents the "dark side" of the internet, who "split into organised and co-ordinated attacks almost along military lines".

Weatherhead was described in court as the network administrator for the AnonOps group. The prosecution alleged he had set up and run the website for the group under the false name Moses Gustavsson. Patel alleged that the defendant had contracted services from a Russian ISP called Heihachi - which the prosecutor described as a "safe haven" for cybercrime.

The defendant allegedly discussed plans to attack the Bank of America and GM Legal, a law firm involved in anti-piracy work, before his home was raided and equipment seized in January 2011.

The trial continues. ®

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