Anonymous: Who? Why? And What It Did in 2011

A leaderless movement puts its lulz on the Internet—without going public.

In Anonymous-speak, /b/ means 'random,' in all the most subversive senses of the word. (Photo: Susana Vera/Reuters)

Allan MacDonell is TakePart’s News + Opinion editor, with a focus on social justice.

The Guy Fawkes-branded, loosely united global collective of computer hackers who wield their activist vandalism under the banner of Anonymous was born as an Internet meme in 2003. The gestation occurred among the stew of anonymously posted anime and anarchy on 4chan.org, an imageboard that seems to have only one rule: disdain all rules, except for the rule that every user is anonymous.

Known membership requirements to Anonymous are few and basic: If you participate in an Anonymous Operation, such as by linking your personal computer to an Anonymous bot net, you are in the club—so long as you keep your identity secret. Going public automatically defines you as someone who is not Anonymous.

The group expresses its broad and amorphous agenda in pointed slogans: “We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.”

Anonymous apologizes only for having ‘violated the western taboo against believing in something.’ Does that clear everything up?

One early Anonymous member told the Baltimore City Paper, while maintaining anonymity:

“We have this agenda that we all agree on and we all coordinate and act, but all without any want for recognition. We just want to get something that we feel is important done…”

That important something is often expressed as distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on government and corporate websites. In a DDoS operation, platforms as public as Facebook and Twitter coordinate thousands of computer users to request large amounts of data from a single website simultaneously. The targeted site is overwhelmed, and its objectionable content is overridden by Anonymous created and approved messaging.

“We are doing it for the lulz.”

The lulz include teaming with Pirate Bay in 2009 to provide Iran’s Green Revolution with ways to upload files through the regime’s firewall. In 2010, the group launched Operation Titstorm against the Australian government’s online chambers in response to Internet censorship laws. Operation Avenge Assange, also in 2010, jammed the sites of PayPal, MasterCard and Visa after those money-transfer services stopped processing donations to the anti-secrecy organization Wikileaks.

The public face of Anonymous—hidden behind Guy Fawkes masks culled from V for Vendetta—was revealed on February 10, 2008. Thousand of real-world protesters materialized on the real estate of North America, Europe, New Zealand and Australia at street-theater events to denounce the Church of Scientology.

Anonymous apologizes only for having “violated the western taboo against believing in something.” Does that clear everything up? There may be one key to what Anonymous is, and what it wants: Know them by their deeds.

Here are five deeds done by the “do as you wish” network in 2011:

1) An Arab Spring Board:  Cyber-war elements played out during regime shakeups in Tunisia, Iran, Egypt, Bahrain, Algeria and Syria. Access to the Internet and to online information was a daily technological battle. Though acknowledging that the real heroes in the Arab Spring were flesh and blood people putting their real skin and bones at risk from actual truncheons, bullets and teargas, Anonymous provided crucial assists on the virtual battlefield in each conflict.

2) LulzSec Infiltrates CIA: The hacktivist group LulzSec is self-branded as “the world’s leaders in high-quality entertainment at your expense,” and has been characterized as an Anonymous spinoff. (Differentiating a spinoff from a core group in such a loose collective is a somewhat arbitrary evaluation.) In June, LulzSec posted a Twitter alert: “Tango down—cia.gov—for the lulz.” The CIA had its site cleared and running within hours, but this particular denial of service attack appears to have been intended to expose and mock vulnerabilities rather that to inflict actual cyber trauma. The CIA did not thank LulzSec for the stress test.

3) Child Porn Exposé: In October, denizens of Lolita City woke up feeling violated. Lolita City is a so-called darknet website populated by individuals who trade in child pornography. Anonymous, under codename Operation Darknet, hacked into the site, which exists on a private network of file-sharing computers. These closed networks are part of what is called the Invisible Web or Deep Web. Not being part of the Surface Web, which is indexed by search engines, the Deep Web is slow to appear on law-enforcement radar. Operation Darknet released the usernames and other information on 1,589 individuals trading in child pornography.

4) The Zetas Standoff: Barrett Brown, a self-ascribed Anonymous member, issued a warning in October to Mexico’s murderous Zeta drug cartel. Based in Texas, Brown went public in retaliation for an alleged Zetas kidnapping of an Anonymous member. Brown threatened to release names of cartel members and identities of public officials and businessmen who work with the Zetas unless the kidnapped Anonymous member was released. Brown claimed to be comfortable with crossing the Zetas and in “passing a death sentence” on collaborators. Before Brown executed his threat, Spanish-speaking Anonymous participants in Mexico announced the Zetas had sent the prisoner home with a message: The cartel would kill 10 people for every criminal named. That prospect of wider carnage led Brown to “rethink my position.”

5) Anonymous Hates Westboro Baptist Church: If you ask Westboro Baptist Church, God hates Anonymous, but the Loving Creator’s enmity toward the hacktivists did not prevent it from perverting the church’s message of hate. In February, the brain trust of Westboro—widely reviled for its bigoted demonstrations at the funerals of gay people—broadcast purported threats from Anonymous. In response, an anonymous Anonymous hacker went head to head with Westboro representative Shirley Phelps-Roper on a news talk show. Eight minutes into the segment, listeners were told to check out Westboro’s site, godhatesfags.com.

“You cannot shut us up,” said Phelps-Roper, anticipating a DDoS stoppage.

Anonymous had left a different message on the site: “Take this defacement as a simple warning: go away. The world (including Anonymous) disagrees with your hateful messages, but you have the right to voice them. This does not mean you can jump onto Anonymous for attention. Anonymous hates leeches: fact.”

Sources: Al Jazeera | The Guardian | Washington Post | New York Daily News | Examiner

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