Some hate them.
Some love them.
Regardless of your position on them, they are here, and they are powerful.
Anonymous, a collection of hackers and activists, have essentially become the Internet’s bouncer. Some question their effectiveness, and belabor their techniques. Others swear by them, hailing them as 21st century activists. One thing is certain; they aren’t afraid to go after anyone — governments included — and with their recent efforts surrounding SOPA and Megaupload, their supporters are growing by the day.
The group began in 2003, born in one of the web’s most notorious imageboards, 4chan. At its outset, Anonymous — the name derived from the posting habits of imageboard users — was, by all intents and purposes, “In it for the lulz,” or laughs. The group gained notoriety in 2008, organizing protests against the Church of Scientology, and their perceived financial exploitation of their members. Dubbed “Project Chanology,” the protests were attended by over 7,000 people in 93 countries.
The first display of their transformation from troubled hackers in it for the fun to full-blown Internet activists — or “hacktivists” — did not arrive until 2009, and the Iranian elections. After vote rigging claims mounted, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner of the presidential elections, and thousands protested in Iran. The Iranian government attempted to censor news of the protests on the Internet, but Anonymous — along with The Pirate Bay — assisted Iranian hackers in launching a website — WhyWeProtest.net — to bypass the censors. Once again, the mainstream media paid attention. Their ranks grew, their role became clearer, and Anonymous went from perceived provocateurs, to one of the top proponents of an uncensored Internet.
Over the next year, Anonymous would combat Internet censorship in Australia, defacing the prime minister’s website, and taking down the Australian Parliament’s website for three days — up to this point, the biggest display of their talents. The Australian stated,
“The government confirmed afterwards that the Cyber Security Operations Centre knew the attack was coming but was unable to stop it.”
At this time — early 2010 — Anonymous had shown that they were serious about protecting Internet freedoms, but another shift in the ideology of the group was about to take place. Sony made one of the biggest mistakes in their company’s history — pursuing a lawsuit against noted hacker George Hotz (geohot) for jailbreaking, and subsequently posting the root key of the PlayStation 3 online. Anonymous caught wind, and all hell broke loose.
The PlayStation Network, Sony’s online gaming network, was hacked between April 17th and April 19th, 2011 as part of Operation Payback. Sony shut down the network on April 20th. During that period, information was stolen from every one of the 77 million accounts on the network. The PlayStation Network was down for 23 days. The group did not claim responsibility for the outage, though they did state that they participated in attacks on the company.
Anonymous continued Operation Payback against Visa, MasterCard and PayPal, companies who blocked donations to WikiLeaks.
All of Anonymous’ activities up to this point had as many detractors as those who praised them, but this changed during the Arab Spring. Anonymous became a staunch ally of the Tunisian protesters, essentially becoming their cyber army, dismantling government sites, and helping activists access the Internet, which was censored by the government. The protests in Egypt got their fair share of assistance from Anonymous, as the group took down the National Democratic Party and President Mubarak’s websites permanently.
Now, barely a month into 2012, Anonymous has shown itself once again. Protesting the U.S government takedown of file-sharing website Megaupload, the group hit back with it’s strongest attacks yet. Anonymous shut down or slowed 10 websites, including the Department of Justice, Universal Music Group, the MPAA, the RIAA, and the U.S. Copyright office.
The structure of Anonymous is unlike any other organization in the world. With no leader or hierarchy, all decisions are made by the majority (This system is the same as the one used by Occupy Wall Street, who have ties to Anonymous members). The lack of a clear hierarchy can have both positive, and negative effects. The positive is that most of the members have — however skewed you may believe them to be — a set of moral principles that they abide by. Back in October, the collective took down over 40 child pornography sites, and released the names of 1,500 alleged users.In a post, Anonymous stated,
“If the FBI, Interpol, or other law enforcement agency should happen to come across this list, please use it to investigate and bring justice to the people listed here.”
The negative is the effect their actions can have on the families of their targets. The group routinely practices “doxing,” or the releasing of all attainable information of said target. This includes emails, social security numbers, financial statements, phone numbers, home addresses — and in the case of their latest target, former Senator, and current head of the MPAA Chris Dodd — his children’s names. Now I am in no way sympathetic to the man who — without even understanding it — is attempting to censor the Internet, and threatening members of Congress, but there are lines that should not be crossed.
For all its faults, Anonymous has emerged as the most powerful antagonists of governments and corporations perceived to be doing wrong around the world. Officials are afraid to go on the record against the group. Corporations have begun hiring security experts — something that should have been done years ago — to protect their assets. The problem is that there are members of Anonymous who have extensive history providing security services for companies. In other words, the current techniques that experts would use to block Anonymous are already known by the group, and may be useless until new methods are created.
Photo by Phillip Stearns
The truth is Anonymous has done serious good in terms of helping to secure Internet freedom around the world. From Iran, to Tunisia and Egypt, to the SOPA/PIPA battle, Anonymous has attempted — and at times succeeded — in combating any attempts at censoring the Internet. But why — and better yet how — did they become the leaders in the prevention of Internet censorship?
Why did it take two of the most ridiculous proposed laws in the history of the U.S. Government for the masses to wake up to the notion that there are people who would love to set us back ten years for financial gain? And If Anonymous wasn’t here helping bring to light situations were governments tried to censor their citizens over the last few years, would things be different now?
Their methods may be questioned, but their desires have stayed the same since they went down this “hacktivist” path — a free and open Internet. The Internet’s bouncer is here to stay.