The very utterance of the name is likely to strike fear into the hearts of many corporate giants, whether they've already experienced action from the hacktivist group or not.
But that very description, "hacktivist" is misleading in itself; they havent really done any serious hacking, have they?
We live in a world in which the dark arts of coding are sadly hidden from many people, partly out of disinterest by the masses or an inability to reconcile the hard work of coding with the "magic" of the end product. As a result any sort of online mischief is attributed to hackers, deserved or not.
It is also worth mentioning that the term "hacker" has been used to describe many heroes of the digital revolution. It is only in the printed media that the term gained its current derogatory meaning; it originally referred to anyone who is really good at something and does it for fun, rather than profit.
Acquiring backdoor access to a website and disrupting the front page is pretty frustrating for the owner. Doing the same thing to a corporate giant whose business practices are questionable is amusing in many ways, but ultimately easy to resolve.
Breaking into a government website or one owned by a major bank and finding a route into the personal data of the general public and then using the information for profit – that's definitely out of order. But Anonymous don't do anything like that – do they?
Background to Anonymous
It's the perfect word to describe life online. If you don't share your identity, you are nearly anonymous, able to behave in a number of different ways which won't impact your real life. Some people might post on message boards, others chat with people they've never met. Elsewhere you will find people who prepare to act against perceived injustices by corporate oligarchs and stand up for freedom of speech and Internet freedom. To this end, Anonymous has formed part of a loosely-defined online hacktivism movement along with Wikileaks and LulzSec.
Members of various online communities are thought to be the core behind Anonymous, although the truth is that the identities of those involved have been largely kept under wraps (you have to credit them with accurate branding if nothing else). As a result, while the odd affiliated member has been identified and arrested for various occasions of online vandalism/civil disobedience, on the whole the group has been able to avoid prosecution by the authorities. This is largely due to the disparate nature of the members, linked only by an online community and philosophy, able to rise in huge numbers to strike before withdrawing into, well, anonymity…
As a result, this strength in numbers and rapid Internet communication enables Anonymous to rise without warning, causing disruption against their targets without the need to create zombie botnets like an everyday cybercrime syndicate. Instead, volunteers replace the botnet and carry out instructions posted online, perhaps in an IRC channel. By taking this approach against big companies with recognizable names, Anonymous is able to generate vital attention and awareness of their activities – something else that marks them as quite different from a run of the mill cybercrime syndicate.
Despite the belief of certain communities online, there is little evidence to back up suggestions that Anonymous is in fact an online false flag group, sponsored by elements with an interest in seeing legislation passed that might restrict online freedom of speech.
An Eye for an Eye?
Anonymous have been called terrorists and vandals, and people claiming to have affiliation with the group have been arrested.
Aside from the potential damage of the various leaks of user data from big companies that should have known much, much better, Anonymous has done little wrong other than disrupt the odd website for a few minutes until the administrators were able to restore a backup and get things back to normal.
That isn't terrorism any more than daubing graffiti across a poster is. Vandalism, perhaps, but given their targets are always corporate giants whose treatment of a certain section of society is questionable, at heart the activity of the group is little more than an online protest, civil disobedience of the kind regularly seen on TV screens currently as the Occupy movement gains regular coverage in their protests against government bailouts of banks with taxpayer's money and the close relations of government and large business that led to it.
In fact, I would even go so far as to suggest that Anonymous made the Occupy movement possible, leading the way for the protest to succeed by encouraging the embracing of social media to harness people power and empower those that feel ready to take to the streets to demand change. A quick look at how Anonymous gathered forces in reaction to the shooting of a drunk on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system and the subsequent shut down of cellphone towers will reveal how adept they are at striking back, in this case by taking the BART website offline and exposing its poor customer security. But that was only their online response.
To really make their feelings about this injustice felt, Anonymous was able to mobilize people on the ground, furnished with "V for Vendetta"-style Guy Fawkes masks who were present to physically protest against the disproportionate reaction of the security team against the deceased man. Afforded an opportunity to join a protest organized by a group as notorious as Anonymous, many people turned up to take part, an example of just how fluid and flexible the whole movement is. One minute you're a part of it, you're anonymous and you can state your argument via protest; the next, you're back to being Julie, working at the local bookstore.
Anonymous and the Occupy Movement
With the prevalence of the various Occupy actions taking place around the world, the role of Anonymous appears to have changed, an evolution that might result in a new group soon usurping its former role of anarchic mocking of groups such as Scientologists.
In this new form, Anonymous is fully wired into things, providing connectivity for the Occupy Wall Street protesters and generating great online PR for the movement. This covers everything from fixing laptops, tablets and mobile phones on the spot to heading online moments later to identify police officers witnessed to have behaved beyond their remit (such as one cop engaged in unnecessary use of pepper spray) and let the world know who they are. It's fair to say that this new dynamic was borne out of the stunning images from Egypt and other nations of the Middle East throughout 2011 where protesters hit the web in an apparently uncoordinated attempt to share what was happening with the world.
Having said that, anonymous, mask-wearing appearances in public is nothing new – an anti-Scientology protest in 2008 had a similar outcome – but the ability to then slip back online, unnoticed, is a fascinating new development made possible by high-specification mobile hardware such as phones and tablets.
Altruism or Anarchy?
Is Anonymous right to push these protests? Shouldn't the people behind the group just forget about it and concentrate on using their skills to their own benefit?
It's a difficult question, but the answer seems simple enough. As far as the members of Anonymous and related groups are concerned, that is exactly what they are doing. They don't want to let the current state of affairs (tax payers bailing out banks only for the same set of traders and rules to persist, only for history to repeat itself, and for the pattern to repeat itself in one industry after another) pass without trying to change the status quo. The result is that their skills are being used, in their eyes, to their own benefit: in order to satisfy a quest for change.
Arguing against this is pretty difficult. The effect that the Occupy movement has had is remarkable, spreading around the globe. Most notably the protests in London have seen a mass encampment spring up at St Paul's Cathedral, as close to the financial district as protesters there could get. Efforts to shut down Occupy protests across North America have met with limited success and the use of force has resulted in heavily increased media attention on the Occupy movement worldwide. .
As far as groups like Anonymous are concerned, reading through the PR spin issued by the corporations and organizations that they have upset is necessary if you want to get close to the truth. You may disagree with their methods and message, but an online crime syndicate they are not.
- Goodman, Amy. "What the Bart protests have in common with Tahrir Square," http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/aug/17/bart-protest-amy-goodman
- Harvey, Brian. "What is a Hacker?", http://www.cs.berkeley.edu/~bh/hacker.html
- Occupy London image provided by author.
- Anonymous logo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Kizar
- Oswald, Ed. "Pro-Wikileaks group using Botnet to retaliate against detractors", http://betanews.com/2010/12/09/pro-wikileaks-group-using-botnet-to-retaliate-against-detractors/
- Kazmi, Ayesha. "How Anonymous emerged to Occupy Wall Street," http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/sep/27/occupy-wall-street-anonymous
- Occupy image credit: Wikimedia Commons/David_Shankbone
- Whyte, Sarah. "Meet the hacktivist who tried to take down the government," http://www.smh.com.au/technology/security/meet-the-hacktivist-who-tried-to-take-down-the-government-20110314-1btkt.html