9 Things Everyone Should Know About The Hacktivist Group Anonymous

By: Wes Walcott
From hacking politicians’ emails to taking down government websites, Anonymous group seems to straddle the line between good and evil. krisanapong detraphiphat / Getty Images

Whether you applaud their Robin Hood-style ideology of championing free speech or detest their reckless disregard for the consequences of their actions, it’s undeniable that Anonymous has become a force to be reckoned with in recent years. From hacking politicians’ emails to taking down government websites, many of the group’s actions seem to straddle the line between good and evil. Maybe you can figure out which side of the fence they land on after reading these nine facts.


9. It’s Not an Organization

The website 4chan is an image message board where people can gather to discuss, gripe about, or confess pretty much anything they want. To facilitate the sharing of possibly incriminating matters, users on the /b/ discussion board generally used the screen name “anonymous” and from that, a subculture of similar-minded individuals with a strong sense of justice and desire the to stir things up eventually became what we know today as Anonymous. But the group has no leader—a fact symbolized by their headless man logo—and they follow no legitimate guidelines or code of conduct. Members just come and go as they please and contribute as much or as little as they like. According to journalist and former member Barret Brown, the most powerful people in Anonymous are those who can rally others to their cause and have proven their hacking skill.


8. Anyone Can Join

No authority is going to try and stop you from joining Anonymous. But if this is something you’re seriously considering, it might be a good idea to first join up with an activism group that obeys the law. This way you can get a feel for what’s involved without risking involvement in any type of illicit behavior. After that, if you still wish to engage with Anonymous, there’s a website you can go to that explains how you can encrypt your computer so you can contact them privately over internet relay chats (IRCs). Be advised that it can take several years to build the relationship with the community required to gain access to the more serious hacktivist discussions, and there are likely people lurking in the forums who aren’t who they claim to be. Although Anonymous does have members who genuinely want to do good, the fact that anyone can join means that moral values likely vary wildly. There are some cases where naive members have ended up doing jail time because they trusted the wrong anons.


7. Most Members Aren’t Actually Hackers

It’s a misconception that everyone in Anonymous is a supreme hacker with the ability crush multinational corporations with nothing more than a laptop and modem. In fact, due to the relative ease of entry, the average Anonymous member probably has very few skills that fall into the realm of hacking. However, that’s not to say that those member don’t contribute, since many of the infamous hacks carried out by the group consist of distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks that utilize the processing power of every computer available to them. In a DDoS attack, networks are overloaded with an influx of information which causes them to crash and results in associated websites being taken offline. These types of attacks can be very frustrating for website administrators and users who are unable to access affected websites until the web traffic returns to normal. In the real world, this would be the equivalent of going in to work and being denied access to the job site by a group of angry protesters.


6. How to Become an Active Participant

After you’ve encrypted your computer and joined the Anonymous community, the next thing to consider, if you haven’t already, is finding a cause that you support. For instance, if you wanted to get involved with the operation against the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS), the first thing you should do is find the IRC chat room dedicated to that operation and pledge your support there.

When they need to flex their muscle, Anonymous uses a special piece of software known as a “low-orbit ion cannon” (LOIC) to launch DDoS attacks. The software enables a computer to make a large-scale attack on any website. Targets are chosen through a voting system and launching an attack is a simple as entering a URL and then inputting the number of hits you want to send (typically enough to overload the network). However, if you disagree with a selected target, you have the option of withdrawing your computer from the botnet, thereby decreasing your involvement and weakening the power of the ion cannon.


5. Using the Low-Orbit Ion Cannon Can Put You at Risk

It should be noted that no legal ramifications should result from you joining Anonymous or chatting with others who claim affiliation, but once you get involved with the deployment of the LOIC, there’s a chance you could be looking at jail time.

In 2008, Anonymous orchestrated a number or protests against the Church of Scientology. Some of the prank-like attacks included flooding the Scientology headquarters with prank calls, sending various departments all-black faxes to deplete their ink, and even a physical protest with participants dawning bandanas and Guy Fawkes masks to conceal their identities. But the real blow came when Anonymous used the LOIC to take the Scientology website offline. Unfortunately, many anon newcomers didn’t realize that the LOIC attacks were traceable and, consequently, some of them, like 18-year-old Brian Mettenbrink, ended up serving a year in prison and coughing up $20,000 in damages to the Church of Scientology.


4. They Can Use Malware to Create Massive Botnets

A botnet is a number of Internet-connected computers communicating with other similar machines in an effort to complete repetitive tasks and objectives. This makes them perfect for cyber attacks that involve spamming, flooding email inboxes, spreading viruses, and, of course, distributed-denial-of-service. The bots are any computers being controlled or programmed by an external source. The attacker typically gains access to the “zombie” network of computers by way of a virus or some piece of miscellaneous code.

In 2010, PayPal, under heavy pressure from the government, cut off its services to WikiLinks after the document leaking website began releasing hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables. In response to the situation, Anonymous went after PayPal’s main site, but the reinforced network withstood the LOIC attack. They just didn’t have enough power to bring down PayPal; that is, until two hackers going by the aliases “Snitch” and “Civil” used a virus to bring a legion of computers under their control. With the a new army of zombie computers at their disposal, Anonymous had the ion cannons it needed to take down PayPal’s main transaction site. PayPal estimated that the damage cost them close to $6 million.


3. They Gave Birth to LulzSec

Now that Anonymous could control zombie botnets, a horde of members was no longer necessary to carry out DDoS attacks. This might have been what prompted a few of the most skilled hackers to break off and form an elite team. Calling themselves LulzSec, the new group was led by “Sabu,” who was largely considered the most skilled hacker in the entire Anonymous crowd.

Having grown tired of all the activism Anonymous was getting involved in, LulzSec was more interested in messing around and causing anarchy just for the fun of it. Their first exploit came at the expense of Fox when the personal information of over 70,000 X Factor contestants was leaked online. PBS became the next target when a hacker posted a fake news story stating that the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac were still alive and living together in New Zealand. But it wasn’t long before LulzSec dispensed with the low-risk crimes and started going after government websites belonging to organizations like the CIA and FBI.


2. They Detest Any Form of Censorship

In 2010, several Bollywood companies hired a software company called Aiplex to launch DDoS attacks on sites that were pirating their movies. This immediately grabbed the attention of the hacktivists who hate censorship in all its forms. They responded by unleashing a wave of cyber-attacks on a number of anti-piracy and pro-copyright organizations.


1. They Help Solve Crimes

Following a 2011 party, an intoxicated female teen was sexually assaulted in Steubenville, Ohio. Soon after, pictures of the incident surfaced online and were circulated in her school. But when the case was reported to the local police, they dismissed it claiming there was a lack of evidence. Well, apparently it was enough evidence for a local group of anons who picked up the trail and soon gathered enough information to get the names and physical descriptions of those suspected of the crime. The attention they brought to the case forced police to actually conduct an investigation which led to the arrest of the culprit.


Frequently Answered Questions

Who is the leader of Anonymous?
There is no leader of Anonymous. The group has no formal structure or hierarchy.