Some organizations use the power of the Internet for good; others, for evil. Some leverage their digital power in full view of the world, legally (or just shamelessly) staking claims to online territories. Others are Anonymous.
Anonymous is an amorphous group of computer-savvy people who sometimes work toward a common cause as so-called hacktivists. A hacktivist (a combination of the word hacker and activist) is someone who uses tech know-how to protest against censorship or perceived political, legal or societal injustices (among other things). In doing so, a hacktivist hopes to bring attention to a cause and to trigger action that addresses those injustices.
Hacktivists often band together to exact revenge of their own design, and Anonymous is a famous (or infamous) example. The group may choose to deface a popular Web site by replacing graphics and text with their own messages. Or they may initiate DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks, in which hackers overload computer systems, making sites and networks completely unavailable to anyone.
These tactics often work. For years, Anonymous has succeeded in garnering worldwide attention for specific causes, or other times, just for fun.
Here's just one example: In 2011, Sony sued one of its customers -- George Hotz -- for creating a workaround that allowed PlayStation 3 users to run the Linux operating system. The thing is, Sony had initially advertised Linux capability as a PS3 feature, but backtracked and created a patch to disable Linux operability.
Sony's actions were so outrageous to Anonymous that it sabotaged Sony's PlayStation Network, the company's online multiplayer system. For nearly a month, no one could access the network, and the company's stock price took a major hit.
Was Anonymous in the wrong for punishing Sony? Or were these hackers merely exacting justifiable revenge on a gigantic, litigious company that lashed out at its own customers?
Whichever side you support, Anonymous got exactly what it wanted: headlines. The breathless news stories that follow Anonymous attacks often condemn Anons (shorthand for group members) as cyber-terrorists, evil vigilantes or anarchists. Other publications brand them as saints who fight back against corruption and injustice in the only way they can.
When enough members of Anonymous latch onto a particular crusade, awful and wonderful things happen. Keep reading and you'll see much more about this famed hacktivist group, which trumpets its presence with the apocalyptic slogan: "We are Anonymous. We are legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us!"
Advent of Anonymous
But what is Anonymous, exactly? To be clear, Anonymous is not a well-defined group of computer hackers. It's not a club of anti-social geeks hiding in their parents' basements or well-trained, militaristic outlaws hiding in shadowy bunkers equipped with high-speed Internet access.
Depending on who you ask, Anonymous is a digital consciousness, a worldwide hive mind, a culture, a political and social movement or an online collective. It's really all of the above. Anonymous is a massive group of users of varying computing abilities who have a lot in common. As with any subculture, Anonymous didn't spring forth from a single moment. It developed slowly over time.
It began in 2003 on 4chan, a so-called image board, which is an Internet discussion forum where users post images on just about any topic you can imagine (including some you don't want to imagine). Here, people share anything that's on their minds with zero self-censorship, in part because they can and do post anonymously.
Because you're reading this information on a family-friendly Web site, it's worth noting that 4chan is anything but family-friendly. And in fact, that's exactly how the denizens of 4chan like it. The often over-the-top and obscene language, personal attacks and roughhouse atmosphere act as filter to repel entire swaths of the Internet population.
4chan is infamous in part for its love of lulz (a derivative of LOL, or laugh out loud), the biting, sometimes vengeful laughter earned at the expense of someone else. To get lulz, 4chan lovers will do just about anything, from stooping to the lowest and crudest form of personal insults to reaching for more sophisticated and coordinated trickery that may or may not involve computer hacking.
Most of the time, these pranks are short-lived, pointless and quickly forgotten. The whole point, in fact, is to not take anything too seriously.
But as 4chan evolved, some users saw possibilities for achieving bigger and more elaborates schemes beyond sophomoric practical jokes. These people gravitated from the image board towards IRC (Internet relay chat) systems, where they could communicate more quickly and exchange more detailed information.
It's in this environment that Anonymous began its slow and often fractious rise. There are many splinter groups within Anonymous, all with various causes that may or may not gain traction. But they all have many things in common. There are no leaders. Although some people take on organizational roles, there is no established hierarchy. Everyone is considered equal. Anyone on the planet can be Anonymous. And to be truly considered a part of Anonymous, you must take real and definitive action to help a cause.
On the next page you'll see one of Anonymous's first accomplishments that really gathered widespread acknowledgement, to both cheers and jeers from people around the globe.
Organized actions from Anonymous became known as ops (short for operations). Some ops fizzle out before a single Web site is vandalized. Others result in online cataclysms that cause real-world financial and political upheaval to the dismay and delight of millions of people.
Anonymous achieved undeniable celebrity status in 2008. That year, a rather unflattering (and creepy) video of Tom Cruise rambling on about his Scientology beliefs was leaked to the Internet, to the anger of church leaders.
So the church attempted to do the impossible -- it tried to remove the video from the Internet. In doing so, they raised the ire of Anonymous, which saw these attempts as a form of censorship. Anons also took issue with the church itself, which it views as a money-grubbing cult.
Thus, Project Chanology was born. Anonymous gathered its collective abilities with the intention of removing the church from the Internet. In a move that would become a hallmark of Anonymous missions, the group broadcast its intentions in a YouTube video.
Then the project began, first as DDoS attack that interfered with the church Web site. Next, there were prank phone calls and orders for unpaid pizza sent to church offices all over the world -- anything to disrupt day-to-day functioning. Of course, these tactics weren't exactly legal, and as a result, risked sealing Anonymous' reputation as law breakers and vigilantes.
Then Anonymous had its moment of clarity, sparked by non-Anonymous Scientologist critic Mark Bunker, who pleaded with the group to use non-destructive and legal means to accomplish its ends.
Thanks to his suggestions, Anonymous shifted from illegal tactics to more legitimate actions, sending thousands of protesters out in front of the churches, all wearing Guy Fawkes masks, the likes of which have become a visual hallmark of Anonymous. These are the same masks worn by the lead character in the movie "V for Vendetta," in which an anonymous anti-hero takes on the powers that be.
During the Chanology ruckus, it became evermore clear that Anonymous was evolving beyond juvenile tricks. Anonymous was getting more serious, more focused and more powerful.
After nearly two years of intermittent pranks and hacking, Anons tired of Project Chanology and mostly ceased activities against the church. There were plenty of other targets out there, and Anonymous was just getting warmed up.
Anthropology of Anonymous
You may question how supposedly faceless, nameless digital activists with no real affiliation or stated allegiance can really accomplish much of anything. Yet as so many people have learned, Anonymous leverages its virtual, digital power for real world results. No one is immune from an Anonymous attack. Mighty governments, humungous corporations, hate groups ... they have all witnessed the reach of Anons cooperating in teams.
For the voiceless and downtrodden, as well as anyone with a penchant for waving handwritten protest signs, Anonymous is a light in the darkness of what some may see as an oppressive New World Order controlled by the rich, powerful and immoral. For those on the other side, Anonymous is a band of vigilantes, anarchists or simply bored computer geeks with destructive streaks. To them, the group is an ominous threat, a sleeping digital dragon that, when awakened, can wreak immense damage.
Defining Anonymous as a group may be a bit misleading, because there's no membership application, no initiation rituals and no certification or diploma that confirms someone as Anonymous. But there are some very real behaviors and customs within Anonymous.
Anonymous has spawned a whole set of mores and social norms and quirks of language, much of it documented in the Encyclopedia Dramatica. This online archive is a sort of like a 101 course to the ins and outs of the Anonymous culture. Fair warning if you choose to venture to this online destination: It is an unfiltered site with graphic language.
While there is no standard rule set, there are rules of the Internet listed at Encyclopedia Dramatica. Rules such as No. 12, which is, "Anything can and will be used against you." And No. 33, "Lurk more, it's never enough." Other rules are stark reminders that Anonymous is not always on righteous, idealistic crusades. Rule No. 6 is, "Anonymous can be a horrible, senseless, uncaring monster." Keep reading and you'll see more about what this beast looks like when it's on the prowl.
More Anonymous Operations
Bored with Scientology, Anonymous turned its collective attention towards other organizations. They attacked the Westboro Baptist Church (which is often classified as a hate group), defacing its Web site and posting messages of tolerance and peace [Source: Vice].
Many Anons were linked to the Occupy Wall Street protesters and encouraged participants to remain peaceful during their sit-ins and marches [Source: Guardian]. They've hunted child pornographers, helping to cripple associated Web sites and releasing the names of people who distributed these illegal images and videos [Source: Zdnet].
Anonymous often strikes government and commercial institutions, too. In one famous instance, they retaliated for government shutdowns of the Pirate Bay and Megaupload, which are Web sites that can be used to distribute movies, music and software. It wasn't that Anons were angry that they suddenly couldn't download music for free. It was that government authorities used the same kind of illegal DDoS attacks that hackers prefer. Only the people who instigated these attacks would ostensibly never face the kinds of criminal charges that any normal citizen would. The irony of the situation fueled outrage among Anons. In retaliation, they hacked the sites of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, the Motion Picture Association of America, the U.S. Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and many others [Source: Forbes].
As the Arab Spring sparked in Tunisia, Anons immediately decided to participate, encouraging protesters, coordinating communications and vandalizing Tunisian government Web sites to stoke the fires of revolution [Source: Al Jazeera]. They did the same in Egypt, Syria and other places where the revolution arose [Source: NBC News].
In 2012, in what they called retribution for mistreatment of Palestinians, Anons attacked a series of Israeli government sites, leaking passwords, private databases and much more [Source: TNW]. In 2013, when Indian authorities violently clamped down on political protesters in Kashmir, Anonymous disabled Indian military and polices sites [Source: Economic Times].
When a 16-year-old girl was allegedly sexually assaulted in Steubenville, Ohio in August of 2012, there was evidence to believe that local authorities attempted to protect the perpetrators. Anons in an offshoot group called Knight Sec launched a crusade to unveil the story and the cover-ups. It leaked photos of the assault, as well as a video of a man bragging about the incident -- and then publicized names of those involved, including two star players on the local high school football team [Source: The Nation].
As you can see, the reach of Anonymous is wide, and its operations, impactful. On the next page, you'll see more about how Anonymous gathers members into a workable collective.
Anonymous is fond of using a logo of a person in suit, with a question mark replacing the face. But how do faceless, nameless people meet and coordinate sophisticated hacking attacks and massive real-world rallies? How do you become Anonymous?
The answer is anything but straightforward. Anonymous is hidden in plain sight. There are no official Web sites or social media feeds, of course, because Anonymous has no designated officials or leaders. But various factions of the group do update Twitter feeds and Web sites, such as AnonNews, which posts press releases and information about ongoing operations.
There are a few publicly accessible discussion forums where you can watch chats unfold, though you won't find any particularly sensitive information. Hang around long enough, prove your worth, display useful skills or knowledge and you may eventually receive an invitation to more private discussion groups. And then, maybe, you'll have the opportunity to participate in an Anonymous campaign.
You'll never really know who you're communicating with, of course. Anons don't reveal any personal information. And smart Anons don't go online with their own computers. Instead, they may use public computers, as well as software or services that hide their location.
Even with those kinds of precautions, Anons say that the organization isn't for everyone, and that participating in DDoS or hacking attacks can result in criminal charges and punishment. But they encourage the risk-averse to contribute using other skills, such as research, video production, press release writing, or just by offering insights and ideas into how best to execute new ops.
Although the people active within Anonymous do their best to hide their identities, the group as a whole is very public about its purposes. Anonymous almost always announces its intentions before launching ops. In doing so, the group demonstrates its willingness to be accountable for its own actions, and furthermore, it makes it more difficult for others to take credit for (or scapegoat) Anonymous for acts that the group doesn't commit.
In spite of all the precautions, once in a while Anonymous members are anything but. Keep reading and you'll see that the group doesn't always like the headlines it makes.
You already know that Anons attempt to vet potential activists whenever they can. But although invitation-only chat systems may weed out a lot of wannabes and stalkers, it doesn't always work as intended.
Authorities and enemies of Anonymous infiltrate the group from time to time, much to the chagrin (or in Anon-speak, the "anti-lulz") of the group. And once in a while, prosecutors build solid cases that result in convictions.
In England in 2012, Ryan Cleary and Jake Davis were arrested for charges related to computer hacking in the name of an Anonymous splinter group called Lulz Security, or LulzSec. The two admitted to attacking computers belonging to the Pentagon, the U.S. Air Force, Nintendo, Sony and the Arizona State Police, among others [source: The Guardian].
There were dozens of other arrests of Anonymous members in 2012, too, all around the world. Most charges are related to Web site defacement, DDoS attacks or for publishing private information that was stolen and leaked to the wider world.
In short, authorities take groups like Anonymous very, very seriously. In early 2013, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called groups related to Anonymous, "a steadily increasing threat to America's economy and national security interests" [source: CNET]. To counter that threat, they say, they'll prioritize hacking-related crimes and more actively pursue prosecution.
Many people within the Anonymous community took issue with those kinds of statements. They say they don't want ill-gotten financial rewards or justifiably classified information. Instead, they merely want to cast a ray of light on the germ-ridden and corrupt corners of our society.
Whether or not you agree with the methods and goals of Anonymous, you can bet that this collective of hacktivists isn't going away anytime soon. With every new exploit, Anonymous gains credibility, either as a threat or as a heroic initiative. That legitimacy means Anons are a cultural force that can and does make things happen.
So when government or authorities fail their citizens and journalists won't listen, there is still hope in Anonymous. And for the unfortunate people who intentionally or accidentally wind up in the crosshairs of an Anonymous op, their digital world will never again be the same.
Author's Note: How Anonymous Works
Love them or hate them, Anons are a true world force that has serious implications for politics and economies everywhere. It is an equalizing force that has reach anywhere there's a computer network. No one can say whether that force will be for good or evil, but's probably safe to say that Anonymous will always be a bit of both – in other words, a digital manifestation of the human condition itself.
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