For as long as there have been computers, there has always been a small minority who tried to hack, crack, code and script their way around the inner workings, making electronics and computers do things that they weren’t designed for.
Hacking isn’t by any means a new thing, as some of its roots can be traced back to WWII when the Allied forces decrypted the Nazi Enigma machine. It was said that the German war-time system of messaging couldn’t be cracked, but through hard work, the Allied forces managed to do just that.
Hacking of computers is done for various reasons, but each hacker has a different motivation. Some are done for personal gain, monetary reward or malicious intent, but the hacker group Anonymous claims freedom of information.
The group, who apparently has no leader, came into prominence by openly supporting the release of classified documents through Wikileaks. But it wasn’t until the hacking of Sony’s PlayStation Network that the public took notice of them.
And although they have been blamed for nearly every hacking attempt in the last two years, the question is- are they as dangerous as the general media claims? Who exactly is Anonymous, and for lack of a better phrase, what do they want?
To define the group is a bit difficult as it’s not easy to pigeon-hole a collective who claim that they don’t have a leader and only consist of a loose group of members from all over the world. How this group functions as one without a leader might just be the biggest social experiment in democracy, discipline and free will.
The name Anonymous has also become a synonym for other hacking collectives like LulzSec, AntiSec and AnonOps, who all might or might not have the same ideals and demands as Anonymous, although they all branched off from the main body at some time.
Whether or not they are as dangerous as the media claims, it all depends on who you ask. The main thought behind the group is to fight for internet freedom and freedom of speech. As history has told us, it becomes a bit of a blurry line at the best of times.
To answer the question of “what do they want?”, we first need to have a look at their recent activity. Although the hacking might seem like random acts of online vandalism, they do have a method to their madness. Since 2006, there have been around 25 documented cases involving the group.
Anonymous attacked security firm HBGary Federal in early February this year in retaliation to CEO Aaron Barr’s claims that they had gained access to the group and were ready to expose them. Anonymous warned that they “shouldn’t be messed” with and proceeded to take control of HBGary’s e-mail, releasing 68 000 e-mails to the public, erasing files, and bringing their phone system down. According to Anonymous, they did this in order to defend themselves.
In March they released emails from Bank of America, claiming that they proved widespread corruption and fraud, and also held details of improper foreclosures.
As regards the PlayStation Network, the group launched attacks on the service in protest of Sony’s lawsuit against George Hotz who reverse engineered their gaming console. They were also enraged by Sony gaining access to all the people’s IP addresses who visited Hotz’s site, labelling it an “offensive against free speech and internet freedom”.
The group worked with branch-off LulzSec in attacking several government websites, including sites in Tunisia, Anguilla, Brazil, Zimbabwe, Turkey, and Australia.
Doing a bit of digging, it can be revealed that the group advocates for internet freedom and freedom of speech, and mainly target large companies. Should the Average Joe be afraid? Not unless he has something to hide on a global scale.
The group seems to carefully choose their targets and believe that by exposing corruption, maladministration, wrongful arrest and clamp downs on internet freedom, the world will ultimately be a better online place. It’s a bit of a catch-22 situation.
Apart from security firms cashing in on the global panic, the everyday person shouldn’t have anything to worry about, so in that sense, they aren’t very dangerous. But for corporate companies, they have an incredible amount to lose.
Of all the associated groups, LulzSec is definitely the wild cannon, like an Underboss trying to gain the favour of The Don. In many forms, they are more dangerous than Anonymous, although they seem to have disbanded after going on a 50-day hacking rampage.
As for who Anonymous is, is a muddy puddle of dis- and misinformation. Since the group claims to have no leader, it’s impossible to put a face to the chaos.
A number of people have been arrested in the past, most notably 18-year-old UK-resident Jake Davis (known as Topiary, associated with LulzSec), but that hasn’t slowed them down. As soon as someone is arrested with suspected links to the group, they often issue a statement saying the person in question isn’t involved or is only a supporter of their cause. Or they attack the agency responsible for the arrest.
But this also creates a bit of a problem. If they have no leader, who is making the decisions as to whom they should attack? Who is co-ordinating their movement? When (if) it all comes crumbling down, who will step up to take responsibility? It’s difficult to fully grasp that a hacking collective can operate so seamlessly without any clear direction… unless there is more to their leadership than what they are eluding to. That might just be the case.
Come to think of it, it could also be that their leadership structure is not a traditional one. Taking a page from Hollywood, the structure could be that of the grand meeting held in one of the Pirates of The Caribbean films.
It’s been established that Anonymous is the main collective of hackers, and AntiSec, LulzSec and AnonOps are all branches of it. What if each of these branches have a leader, and all the leaders come together to discuss strategy? In that sense, Anonymous won’t have a leader (as claimed), as all the individual leaders make collective decisions.
It would actually make a lot of sense, because if someone is caught and decides to spill the beans, no other one person can be implicated as being the master mind. It’s all or nothing.
A red flag has gone up in the past regarding the leadership of LulzSec, as a member named Sabu publicly admitted that he is in a leadership position. An anti-Anonymous group called Web Ninja has managed to reveal a majority of the LulzSec crew, with Sabu turning out to be Hugo Carvalho from Portugal. In a tweet from the account @AnonymouSabu, he said “OK You found me. I am Hugo. I am in Portugal. Next question is: Can you stop me?” after tweeting again “The government of Portugal will not extradite me.”
As for the future of Anonymous and similar groups, only history will tell. The group once again became vocal on the back of recent riots in the UK, and Prime Minister David Cameron revealing that the government was looking into shutting down messaging services such as BlackBerry messenger, Facebook and cell networks in case of more riots. This seemed to fall squarely against the “morals” of Anonymous, as they tweeted on Thursday “PLEASE let @Number10gov know that you WON’T STAND for mobile/social networks being blocked during riots.”
In response to a question from Twitter user Kevin de Chantal on why the UK government shouldn’t shut down the social networks, the group replied with “Because it’s censoring speech, and it’s unlikely to make a difference. The Internet should not be censored.”
In recent days #OpFacebook has also made an appearance on Twitter, with some people claiming that Anonymous will attempt to shut down the world’s largest social network on Guy Fawke’s Day, which is 5 November.
It’s seems as though the idea of #OpFacebook was born a number of years ago, and while nothing happened then, it’s been revived by an unknown person. But Anonymous has strongly denied any attempt to hack the site. In a tweet posted from 10 August, the AnonOps group posted “TO PRESS: MEDIA OF THE WORLD… STOP LYING! #OpFacebook is just ANOTHER FAKE! WE DONT “KILL” THE MESSENGER. THAT’S NOT OUR STYLE”.
Although there was a genuine operation to hack Facebook, the thought has since been shelved and website Gawker writes that the “current panic springs from some overeager hacktivists and media stumbling over the remnants of that abandoned operation and spinning it into a dastardly plot to destroy Facebook.”
So between all the plots to overthrow the online community, destroy governments in virtual warfare and cause general mayhem because of a misuse of information, Anonymous should actually not be feared. Well, at least not by the everyday man.
In the end, and it might not seem like it now, they do have a genuine agenda that will supposedly benefit everybody that uses the internet. The way they go about it might not be correct and even criminal, but is freedom of speech and internet freedom such a bad thing?
As a closing thought, although hacking is wrong, is it such a bad thing to have a faceless, leaderless organisation that is only fighting for a free world and not for personal gain? Or are they?
Yes it causes disruptions, has the potential to destroy people’s lives and cripple companies, but…
We’ll have to ride this one out and wait for the digital ripples to make their way around the globe. As their slogan goes “We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. We love you. Expect us.”
Charlie Fripp – Consumer Tech editor