Anonymous Navigates the New Frontier of Civil Disobedience

The hacker group activates online groundswells for social reform that can give traditional protests an extra bump toward changing policy.

A man wearing a Guy Fawkes mask surfs the web during a "Campus Party" Internet users gathering in Sao Paulo January 30, 2013. Campus Party is an annual week-long, 24-hour technology festival that gathers around 8000 hackers, developers, gamers and compute

Anonymous’s hacktivism could end up pushing the center of the Internet toward the left on social justice issues. (Photo: Nacho Doce/Reuters)

Matt Fleischer is a TakePart contributor who was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

The “hacktivist” group Anonymous is in the news again, claiming to have taken down the website of the Los Angeles Police Department—for its trigger-happy mishandling of the search for muder suspect and former LAPD officer Christopher Dorner.

Seven LAPD officers, due to a “a tragic misinterpretation” and “incredible tension,” mistook a 71-year-old Latina newspaper delivery woman and her 47-year-old daughter for the 6-foot 270-pound Dorner last week and unleashed a fusillade of gunshots at her pickup truck. 

That Anonymous should wade into the fray of such a high-profile criminal justice case is no surprise. The group launched the latest in a series of online attacks against the U.S. Government last week, hacking into the internal records of the U.S. Federal Reserve and publishing a trove of contact and personal information on more than 4,000 American bank executives.

The information was rather benign in itself, but the fact that data could be purloined from behind the black curtain of such a high-profile, secretive entity within the government testifies to the group’s reach and determination.

What else has Anonymous gotten ahold of?

The U.S. Reserve hack was part of a larger operation Anonymous is calling “Operation Last Resort”—a full-scale cyber assault on the U.S. criminal justice system in retaliation for its extended prosecution of online activist Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide last month after years of staring down the possibility of a 35-year prison sentence.

Anonymous is vowing not to end its campaign until the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), the statute federal prosecutors used against Swartz, is completely revamped.

Anonymous has routinely committed itself to the pursuit of legitimate social justice ends. So is it fair to file Anonymous’s recent hacks under the category of online vandalism?

“As written, the CFAA could criminalize behavior by tinkerers, security researchers, innovators and people who seek to avoid being tracked and discriminated against,” Electronic Frontier Foundation media relations director Rebecca Jeschke explains to TakePart. “That allows ambitious prosecutors—not to mention unhappy companies—to target these folks.”

Hackers have a reputation as basement-dwelling loners who prowl and disrupt the Internet just for the yucks. But Operation Last Resort hacks inspired by Swartz and in favor of CFAA reform are the latest in a string of Anonymous efforts to push a serious agenda of social justice reform and governmental transparency. For instance, Anonymous has repeatedly gone to bat for Bradley Manning—the source of the original WikiLeaks data dumps, who has been locked up (and by many accounts mistreated) in military prisons ever since he was identified as the source of the leak.

In 2011, the group led a series of high profile “denial of service” attacks to shut down the websites of Paypal and Mastercard after the financial service providers froze WikiLeaks online fundraising accounts.

Anonymous has routinely committed itself to the pursuit of legitimate social justice ends. So is it fair to file Anonymous’s recent hacks under the category of online vandalism?

“To sort of pigeonhole Anonymous as kind of basement dwellers who are marginalized, who kind of have no lives, who are just exercising their psychological pathology is really selling this world short,” New York University media, culture and communications professor Gabriella Coleman said in 2011. “What they do is civil disobedience. They help in terms of human rights activism. And, yes, they do things in a kind of way that enacts spectacle, but that’s actually quite tactical and effective.”

Fast forward two years and, indeed, Anonymous continues to be effective—whether the government will admit it or not.

U.S. Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren recently introduced a new bill, Aaron’s Law, designed to curb the excesses of the CFAA. Even though it’s highly unlikely she would credit Anonymous with inspiring her action (Lofgren could not be reached for comment), Anonymous’s radicalism no doubt makes the demands of groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has been legally lobbying for CFAA reform, seem more reasonable by comparison.

As its response to the Occupy movement demonstrated, various government entities are highly adept in the art of snuffing out ’60s-style boots-on-the-ground civil disobedience. The digital realm may truly be the only space to effectively tweak the government into acting more responsibly—by allowing more moderate demands to be taken seriously.

Do you think Anonymous deserves credit, and respect, for its endeavors on behalf of social justice reform? Say yes or no and why in COMMENTS.

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