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Hacker group Anonymous targets Children’s Hospital

The infamous computer hacker network known as Anonymous threatened to attack Boston Children’s Hospital over the child custody case involving Justina Pelletier last month, just a few weeks before the medical center’s website was subjected to numerous cyberassaults.

Although there is no direct evidence linking Anonymous to the attacks this week against Children’s, cybersecurity specialists said the incident bore the hallmarks of the mysterious network of Internet agitators who cripple a target’s Internet operations with a barrage of traffic.

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Anonymous has made its interest in the case clear. Several weeks ago, the group claimed responsibility for an attack on the website of Wayside Youth and Family Support Network, the Framingham residential facility where 15-year old Justina has been living since January under state custody.

After the more recent attack on Children’s, some patients and medical personnel could not use their online accounts to check appointments, test results, and other case information after the hospital shut down those Web pages.

The threats from Anonymous are the latest to emerge against Children’s Hospital and Wayside in the emotional child custody case that began more than a year ago in Massachusetts and has since become a national controversy involving conservative Christian activists and civil libertarians.

Anonymous launched its campaign on Justina’s behalf in March, with a video on YouTube and a separate manifesto that threatened Children’s and the physician, Dr. Alice Newton, who brought medical child-abuse charges against the girl’s parents.

“To the Boston Children’s Hospital why do you employ people that clearly do not put patients first?” the manifesto read. “We demand that you terminate Alice W. Newton from her employment or you to shall feel the full unbridled wrath of Anonymous. Test us and you shall fail.”

Justina’s mother, Linda Pelletier, said Thursday that she did not know about the cyberattacks on her daughter’s behalf and does not condone them.

“I think the whole thing has gotten out of control,” Pelletier said. “I don’t know who Anonymous is. I just want my daughter home.”

Newton, who at the time was head of the child abuse prevention unit at Children’s, did not respond to requests for comment. Children’s Hospital said it has notified law enforcement authorities about the cyber attacks.

Massachusetts State Police are also investigating threats made toward staff members at the state Department of Children and Families who were involved in Justina’s case.

In 2013, the Pelletier family brought Justina to Children’s for treatment of severe intestinal problems and other issues. But Children’s physicians concluded Pelletier’s problems were primarily psychiatric and that her parents were pushing for unnecessary medical interventions.

The hospital filed medical child abuse charges, which were ultimately supported by the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families. Then on March 25, a Juvenile Court judge, Joseph Johnston, issued an opinion that was harshly critical of the parents’ behavior over the prior year, saying they had not cooperated with Justina’s health care providers and were verbally abusive to staff.

Johnston concluded the parents were unfit to care for their child’s complex medical and psychiatric needs and gave permanent custody of Justina to the state.

Lawyers for Justina’s parents say they plan to contest the judge’s ruling.

Justina’s parents, who live in West Hartford, Conn., have insisted their daughter suffers from mitochondrial disorder, a group of genetic ailments that affect how cells produce energy, often causing problems with the gut, brain, and muscles.

Anonymous is best known for taking on big corporations such as Mastercard and Visa and pursuing politically motivated attacks by successfully striking against the FBI or CIA. It often intervenes in high-publicity cases when it feels an individual is being persecuted by an institution.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology was attacked by a group claiming to be Anonymous that was protesting the case of Aaron Swartz, the online activist who committed suicide while being prosecuted on charges he allegedly downloaded millions of archived documents illegally.

Though flooding sites with traffic is a relatively simple task for skilled technicians, Anonymous conducts its attacks with theatrical flourish. The video launching the campaign for Justina, for example, features scenes from a street protest with an unidentified man who wears the Guy Fawkes mask made famous by the 2005 movie “V for Vendetta.”

Gabriella Coleman, a McGill University professor who has studied Anonymous, describes it as a “protest ensemble” that uses the Guy Fawkes mask as a symbol of its members’ anti-authority or populist tenets.

The mask also symbolizes the group’s shadowy identity. Individual members rarely speak to the news media or discuss the group’s actions or targets. Over the past few years, however, the group has been hit by the arrest of about 100 members around the world, Coleman said. As a result, she said, Anonymous has become quieter about its activities.

While Anonymous has not taken responsibility for the Children’s cyberattack, Coleman said it does appear to be their handiwork. “It’s not a far jump to think they would have gone after a hospital,” she said.

In the material it disseminated on the Pelletier case, Anonymous listed the Internet address of Children’s Hospital’s website and information about the type of computer servers the hospital uses. The attacks began sometime over the weekend, but on Thursday the hospital’s main website remained in operation; other Web pages that are used by Children’s patients and outside medical staff were offline.

Hospital officials said little about the attacks but reiterated that no patient data were compromised.

In a memo sent to Children’s employees Monday, chief executive Sandra Fenwick said the hospital had been the victim of “multiple attacks, designed to bring the site down by overwhelming its capacity.”

Fenwick also said that the hospital “received a direct, credible threat against our internal network, including staff and patient information,” and that it had reported the threat to law enforcement.

The attack against Wayside appears to have been launched in late March, according to a Twitter account that claims to be connected to Anonymous. The Twitter account first called for volunteers to help deluge the Wayside website with traffic and followed with another message crowing about the attack.

In a statement on Thursday, Wayside said it had “experienced some limited disruptions” of its website.

“Though we do not know the source, we are dismayed and concerned that someone would try to disrupt the important work we do with hundreds of children and families in various community and home settings,” Wayside said.

Michael B. Farrell
can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeMBFarrell.

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