Thursday, July 19, 2012

What is the hacker group Anonymous?

I'm reading Mark Bowden's interesting non-fiction book, WORM, and it got me thinking about the Internet, malware and hacking.  This led me to consider the well-known hacker group Anonymous.

What is Anonymous?

According to most reports, Anonymous isn't so much a single group as it is a loose coalition of hacktivists (hacker activists) who organized in 2003.  Anonymous is international, distributed, technically savvy, and...anonymous.  What makes analysis tricky here is that anyone can 'join' Anonymous simply by saying their activities take place under the Anonymous umbrella. 

Depending on where you get your news, they may be labeled 'anarchists,' 'hacktivists,' 'terrorists,' or 'vigilantes.'  I think it's always more instructive to examine what someone does, rather than what they say (try this technique on politicians.)  So let's look at some of their operations.

Operations

2008 Staged protests against Scientology, centered around Scientology censorship on the Internet. 

2009 Online attack against the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry because of their battle against online file sharing.  This was an anti-censorship move--some Anonymous members obviously support file sharing sites.  In 2012, the file share site Megaupload was also an issue.

2010 Anonymous targeted credit card companies Visa and Mastercard after they froze Wikileaks accounts.  Known as Operation Avenge Assange.

2011 Anonymous launched online attacks against a large child pornography trading site.  They may also have been responsible for attacks on government websites in Algeria, Chile, Colombia, Egypt, Iran, Libya, and New Zealand.

2012 During the SOPA protests, Anonymous may have attacked websites at the FBI, Department of Justice, Recording Industry Association of America, and the Motion Picture Association of America.  They also urged Occupy Wallstreet protestors to remain peaceful, made threats against Facebook, and may have made online attacks against the Pentagon.

Are they terrorists?

I define terrorism as a deliberate attack against civilians for a political or religious purpose.  Generally, I think of this as a physical attack.  For example, the attack on the twin towers in New York in 2001--these were buildings filled with office workers.  I classify 9/11 as a terrorist attack. 

Collateral damage is not the same because the intent is different.  For example, if US forces in Afghanistan attack a building containing Taliban, and accidently kill some civilians during the battle, it's not a terrorist action.  I think US forces make an enormous effort to prevent civilian casualties, but it is impossible to completely avoid them when the enemy hides among the populace.

How about indirect harm? If an online attack takes down your credit card company it's an inconvenience and a probably a crime.  If they take down the power grid supplying electricity to a hospital, it's terrorism.

I don't know the detailed damage of every one of Anonymous's online attacks, but I don't see evidence they've physically harmed people, so I don't view them as terrorists.  Many governments may categorize their activities as criminal, but that's not the same thing as terrorism.

Surprising Conclusions

In researching this post, I was surprised to find that I agree with some of Anonymous's actions.  I am against child pornography and if governments won't take action against these websites, vigilantes should. 

In my opinion, Scientology is a scam designed to take money from people.  I am against censorship, but have mixed feelings on file sharing--as a writer who works hard on my books, I don't like the idea of people pirating them.  On the other hand, if you purchase an ebook or a song, you should be able to make backup copies for yourself. 

I am against SOPA because its benign name hid an agenda of censorship and anti-free speech.  And finally, going after repressive governments in places like Iran, Egypt and Libya makes sense to me.

I don't understand their opposition to Facebook and New Zealand, or their support for Julian Assange.  But the loose nature of Anonymous and its deliberate lack of leadership means that individuals may act in their own particular interests, and then claim they were working on behalf of Anonymous.  (Which makes me wonder how they handle that, and do they self police?)

It's up to you to make up your own mind about Anonymous and other hacker groups.  Some people fear them, others see them as the future.  But I suspect we will see more groups like this in the years ahead--I just hope they use their skills for good and not evil.

As Spiderman says, "With great power comes great responsibility."

(Here is a detailed Wikipedia article about Anonymous, and a Yahoo News article about their attack on child pornography.  And an NPR audio (with transcript) that provides some views from other hackers.  The picture is from: beforeitsnews.com)

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