In a war rivaling the plot-line of science fiction writer and founder L. Ron Hubbard's novel Battlestar Earth, Scientologists are bracing for an assault against their online presence after the church's website was disabled by a group calling itself simply "Anonymous." The attacks occurred after the Church of Scientology (COS) demanded a controversial Scientology video be removed from web sites. The video featured top acolyte Tom Cruise making bold claims about the power of COS doctrines. The stated goal of the attackers is nothing less than the total eradication of the church from the Internet.
The attack began January 19, according to a statement on Anonymous' web site, claiming they decided to knock the Church of Scientology's web site offline through a distributed denial-of-service attack. This practice uses many computers to bombard the victim's server with requests, overwhelming it with an avalanche of data that is meant to melt down the system and remove it from transmission. The clip was taken from Cruise's COS Freedom Medal ceremony in late 2004 at which the actor speaks with frank intensity about being a Scientologist and the manifest powers found therein.
Anonymous released their own Youtube video addressed to the leaders of the Church of Scientology, claiming they were guilty of running "campaigns of misinformation" and the "suppression of dissent." It went on to warn, "We shall proceed to expel you from the Internet and systematically dismantle the Church of Scientology in its present form." The group was infuriated when the Tom Cruise video was removed from Youtube which is undoubtedly treading carefully around the highly litigious group after COS lodged a copyright infringement complaint. The material has now resurfaced on Gawker.com which has stated it will not remove the video.
Internet analysts claim the war has been brewing for some time. University of Alberta professor and expert on IT security, Dr. Stephen Kent said, "The debates about Scientology on the Internet go back well over a decade. In many ways, the Internet is Scientology's Achilles heel. Free speech advocates insist on posting documents that Scientology considers secret. Scientology has fought numerous battles to limit the dissemination of (their) material on the Internet." Kent warns that since there are tech savvy persons on both sides, the beginning skirmish promises to escalate into a full-fledged campaign. Adds Kent, "Scientology has a number of people who are quite computer savvy so we're going to see a geek war as one side tries to destroy Scientology and the other tries to protect it."
The Church of Scientology has a long history of battling other Internet groups. For example, in 1995, lawyers from the Church of Scientology tried get the alt.religion.scientology newsgroup pulled from Usenet. But the action backfired, and it garnered much press for the a.r.s. newsgroup. In fact, the conflict lead to another declaration of war by the celebrated hacker cell Cult of the Dead Cow, which has now gone down in Web lore as: "Scientology versus the Internet".
The web site of the attackers state their goals as: "Save people from Scientology by reversing the brainwashing. Cause current Scientologists to doubt their "religion" (CULT). Gain experience of performing operations on a global scale. Alert the public to our presence and recruit active participants."
The Church was dismissive of the attacks. Yvette Shank, a spokesman for the Church of Scientology, stated that the church doesn't "give a damn" who was responsible for the Internet disruption. "We have our books. We have our people. And we can speak," Shank said from the Toronto COS headquarters.
The Church released an official announcement on their COS web site:
"As the Church previously announced, the pirated and edited excerpts of Mr. Cruise were contained in an official Church event in 2004, an event attended by 5,000 Scientologists and their guests and further available for viewing in any Church of Scientology world over. Having presented these selective and out-of-context excerpts with the intent of creating both controversy and ridicule, nevertheless resulted in people searching for and visiting Church of Scientology Web sites as evidenced by "most searched for" lists of various search engines. Those wishing to find out the Church of Scientology's views and to gain context of the video have the right to search official Church Web sites if they so desire."
The attacks have defaced and rendered inoperable a number of COS web sites. But as a very wealthy institution, the Church has fought back with technological answers. On January 21, the Church of Scientology moved its domain to Prolexic Technologies, a group that specializes in protecting Web sites from DDoS attacks by creating a safe tunnel by filtering all incoming mail and then allowing only clean messages through.