This article was first published in the 8.11.11 issue of Metroland
There have been lots of headlines lately about Anonymous, a mysterious “hacker collective” that’s pulled off a string of “attacks” on websites as varied as those of Sony Corporation, the government of Tunisia, and last weekend, dozens of rural U.S. police agencies. The mainstream media reports on Anonymous typically focus on the criminal aspects of the hacks, the impacts on the various victims, and the efforts of international law enforcement to get the “bad guys.” It’s not unusual for Anonymous to be described in news reports as some kind of terrorist organization.
Which is totally ridiculous. Anonymous and its various strains (like the associated group LulzSec) are a loose and leaderless international collection of activists, apparently mostly teen-aged boys, who hack their way into the internet environments of their carefully-chosen targets in order to embarrass, to bring about social change, and for bragging rights. The “members” communicate via chat rooms, develop and exchange hacking software, and execute. Typically, a hack is immediately announced on the internet, along with proof of the hack, things like confidential documents and other types of supposedly “secure” information like customer identities and data.
While what they do certainly involves breaking some laws (mostly odd laws that are the digital equivalent of breaking and entering), if you ignore the mainstream media hysteria and look at what Anonymous really does, it’s obvious that they are overwhelmingly a force for good.
Take, for example, last weekend’s hack of police agencies. The agencies’ websites were defaced and a bunch of police information and some credit card numbers were posted online. It turns out that all of the affected agencies maintained their websites through the same internet company, and the hack that got Anonymous in through the back door remained open and undetected for as much as a week. A spokesman for one of the police agencies stated that the hack had compromised some ongoing police investigations; this was an isolated quote that was featured in every mainstream media report I’ve seen. But the bigger story, and one not mentioned by the media, was that whole bunch of law enforcement agencies had entrusted their confidential files to a third party vendor that left the files vulnerable to teen-aged boys in suburban bedrooms pecking away on their laptops.
If the motley and over-caffeinated members of Anonymous were the thieves, pirates, anarchists, or terrorists that the media portrays them to be, we’d probably never hear of the hacks until real damage was done. The information gathered from the hacks would be used for further nefarious activities, really criminal stuff, and not simply posted online like a geek trophy. The stolen credit card numbers would be used, not posted (although last weekend’s police hack had a funny exception to this: Anonymous announced that a few of the hacked credit card numbers were employed to make modest “involuntary contributions” to the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Bradley Manning Defense Fund).
In other words, if Anonymous finds your vulnerability, you just get humiliated. And you spend some money making your system more secure. If a truly criminal enterprise gets there first, you and everyone you’ve got information on could get wiped out.
Also unexplored and unreported by the mainstream media are the activities of Anonymous in the geo-political arena. Anonymous played a critical role last year in the Arab Spring uprisings throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, attacking and disabling government websites and digital communications while simultaneously enabling the internet capacities of the protesters on the streets. Right now Anonymous is in a pitched battled with the murderous and corrupt Syrian regime.
Governments that enact internet censorship laws are attacked, as Turkey was a few months ago and as Australia was in 2008’s appropriately-named Operation Titstorm. The Church of Scientology is a frequent target, and it appears the evil Westboro Baptist Church is getting teed up for a takedown. This morning I read that Anonymous claims that it will take down Facebook in a few months for its shoddy privacy policies. The ultra-right wing Koch brothers, who have shoveled millions upon millions of dollars into the Tea Party and other fascist causes, are constant targets. And of course Anonymous has been unwavering in its support for Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, and Wikileaks.
Do I agree with everything done in the name of Anonymous? Of course not, and neither do the members of Anonymous. There are constant disputes among the members about what’s OK and what’s not, and these fascinating disputes are utterly transparent in public online arguments. And as this is a decentralized, leaderless, and formless group, reported Anonymous hacks are increasingly being quickly disavowed by members of Anonymous. In fact, a recent thread in Anonymous blogs involves claims that governments are staging phony Anonymous attacks on themselves in order to justify more internet censorship and stiffer anti-hacking laws.