When hearing of an organization that took down 40 child porn websites, was able to get sufficient information to take down the second most powerful drug cartel in Mexico and regularly works to reveal governmental and corporate corruption, it may be easy to assume that it is essentially ‘good.’ This organization, referred to as Anonymous, does play the hero in certain cases, but they usually do so through illegal means. Unfortunately, there have been dozens of other operations carried out by Anonymous that were just as illegal, but far less righteous. It is difficult to know whether or not to be in favor of these vigilantes, as not all of their crimes are for the common good. I am generally in favor of Anonymous and their intentions, but many others are not.
It’s a bit difficult to explain what Anonymous actually is. Anonymous is an international hacking ‘group’ that originated in 2003 on the Internet, specifically the imageboard 4chan, as recognized by Luke Allnutt in his article on the Tangled Web. It’s not exactly an official group because there aren’t set members, nor a leader. Their name was inspired by the ‘Anonymous’ username that is shown when website visitors comment or post without specifying the originator of the content. As the anonymous posters became more numerous, the idea of Anonymous was formed for any and all anonymous Internet users as an unnamed collective. Any member of Anonymous must never reveal their identity. To become a member, it is as simple as concealing oneself whilst performing online activities. Anonymous relies on the collective power of its individual participants acting in such a way that the net effect benefits the group, as there is no leader, noted Chris Landers of Baltimore City Paper. A member of Anonymous, or an ‘Anon’, explains to the Baltimore City Paper, “We have this agenda that we all agree on and we all coordinate and act, but all act independently toward it, without any want for recognition. We just want to get something that we feel is important done…”
Internet events involving Anonymous began in 2005, one of the first being the “Habbo raids.” Habbo is a simulation social networking site designed to be like a virtual hotel. “Hundreds of Anonymous users showed up using identically dressed avatars: a black man with an Afro in a grey suit,” explains Ryan Singel of Wired.com. These Anons blocked entry to popular hangouts on the site, including the virtual hotel pool, saying it was ‘closed due to AIDS.’ This, actually, (according you knowyourmeme.com) was a reference to a real-life case reported by AOL News where an HIV-positive toddler was banned from a public pool. At first this action seems like random, unnecessary harassment to Habbo and its users, but it was revealed (anonymously, of course) on 4chan that Habbo’s social moderators were racists, using their ban powers against Black-avatar users. According to knowyourmeme.com, Anonymous had created these avatars as a way to protest against Habbo’s alleged racism. These raids are what made Anonymous well-known on the Internet and in “real life,” as controversy on the raids was discussed on local news stations.
Anonymous is also a strong supporter of WikiLeaks, an international non-profit organization that publishes private and classified media from anonymous news sources and leaks. WikiLeaks has received much criticism due to its exposure of this classified information, but it has also received praise. The UK Information Commissioner has said that, “WikiLeaks is part of the phenomenon of the online, empowered citizen.” This description sounds similar to the description of Anonymous. Supporters of WikiLeaks have commended it for exposing state’s and corporate’s secret corruption, increasing openness in communication and accountability, supporting freedom of the press and “enhancing democratic discourse while challenging powerful institutions,” says Anand Kul Bhushan of Osho World News. Anonymous targeted the government websites of Zimbabwe and of Tunisia, both of which censored the WikiLeaks documents. They also launched DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks against MasterCard, Visa, PayPal and Amazon, which were perceived by Anonymous to be engaging in anti-WikiLeaks behavior. On December 8, 2010, both Visa’s and MasterCard’s websites were down. Although the actions of Anonymous are extremely radical and may be over the top, they seem to be using civil disobedience to fight against anyone who is risking the right to freedom of speech or censoring the Internet. It may not be the best idea to protest against things through illegal means, but their intentions are usually good. I approved (to some extent) of WikiLeaks when it appeared. I would never hack anything myself, but I do agree with Anonymous. Much of what they do can be perceived as estimable.
Other Anonymous events are not as honorable. For example, there is a good possibility (as Wired News says there is at least circumstantial evidence) that it was the Anons who raided the Epilepsy Foundation of America’s forum in 2008 with flashing animations with the intention of triggering seizures and migraines in photosensitive and pattern-sensitive epileptics. These kinds of raids, the ones with no moral purpose, are the ones of which I completely disapprove. However, Anonymous claimed that the Church of Scientology had planned these attacks in order to “to ruin the public opinion of Anonymous, [and] to lessen the effect of the lawful protests against their virulent organization,” as was reported by News.com.au. Anonymous had been protesting against the Church of Scientology in 2008 due to their Internet censorship and their disconnection policy, which is when a Scientologist ceases communication with all people, even family, who are considered antagonistic towards Scientology. Regarding Scientology’s actions of Internet censorship, a video produced by the Church that leaked on to Youtube on January 14, 2008 was taken down at the Church’s request. The video showed an interview with Tom Cruise discussing Scientology. The Church called this a a copyright violation and requested that Youtube remove the video. In retaliation, Anonymous started Project Chanology, where they attacked the Church through prank calls, denial-of-service attacks on their websites and black faxes (a prank fax transmission where all pages are filled with black tone with the intention of consuming the recipient’s ink or toner). However, it is still not clear who the perpetrator was in the case of the Epilepsy forum, but members of the forum have claimed that they saw a thread on 7chan.org, one of Anonymous’s ‘home bases,’ in which Anons were planning the attack. This cannot be proven, as every thread on these types of imageboards are automatically deleted after a certain period of time.
It is also easy to blame all of Anonymous when it may be just one subgroup of Anonymous executing the negative events and causing chaos. But, since everything is anonymous, it is difficult to decipher what is truly a collective effort from all its members and what is a misrepresentation of the group from immature subgroups.
In January of 2009, John Rogers of The Associated Press reported that Anons targeted McKay Hatch, a teenage boy from California who ran a website called the No Cussing Club– a website against profanity. Anons, deciding this was ridiculous, leaked Hatch’s personal information online, including his phone number and address, for fun. Hatch and his family received prank calls, bogus pornography deliveries and hate mail. This harassment does not have any moral reasons to support it. Some Anons use their hacking powers to harass innocent victims “for the lulz,” (LOLs/laughs), as they say. One self-description, which Scott S of Yale Law & Technology (yalelawtech.org) shared, is: “We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.” Anons also say this ‘catchphrase’ at the end of many of their announcement videos, such the video ‘We Are Anonymous’ on Youtube by user WeWhisperTheTruth. This ominous message sounds threatening and it does not put Anonymous in a good light. Although, this collection of users cannot be fit under one definition.
The power that Anonymous has is quite frightening. As Jason Schreir of GameLife reports, Anonymous was said to have caused the major outage of the Playstation Network in April 2011, in which personal information from approximately 77 million Playstation Network accounts were stolen and users of Playstation 3 and Playstation Portable were not able to play online through the server. This was “arguably the second largest data breach ever,” according to Dr. Paul Judge, chief research officer and and vice president of Barracuda Networks, a privately held company that provides security and storage solutions. As frightening as this breach is, it is also extremely impressive. Anonymous has officially admitted to attacks on Sony websites due to Sony’s gaining access to the IP addresses of everyone who visited the blog of George Hotz, the alleged initial hacker of the Playstation 3, whose blog included information about his hacking methods. Anonymous decided that it wasn’t fair for Sony to target people who merely visited the site of Hotz. They believe that it was offensive against free speech and Internet freedom. Therefore, they took action. I can’t say I don’t agree with them, but they took their aggression a little farther than they should have.
The most recent actions of Anonymous are both the most frightening and the most respectable. In October 2011, Anonymous admitted to executing Operation DarkNet, in which they took down 40 child pornography websites and published the names of over 1,500 users of such sites. Child porn sites are run on scattered volunteer servers in the “dark net” corners of cyberspace. Because of this, it is extremely difficult for anyone, including the government, to monitor their content. One server, called ‘Freedom Hosting,’ housed 40 child porn sites with over 100 GB of child pornography, and Anonymous disabled it. The enormous task of this project shows how powerful Anonymous is. This is one of the most impressive displays of ‘crime-fighting’ with technology that I’ve come across. I’m sure the government in charge of this, or the cyberspace chaperones, as I like to call them, takes down illegal content on a daily basis. The difference is that they don’t do anything illegally (although, I guess it’s on their terms), so they might not be able to get to the stuff that Anonymous can get through hacking. The Patriot Act allows the U.S. government to monitor anything sent over the Internet, but it is extremely difficult to track and monitor scattered severs with highly concealed information. Anonymous was able to do this. The means through which they acquired this information was no doubt through illegal hacking, but, as vigilantes, they committed a crime for the greater good. If having your child porn subscription information released to the public is not enough of a motivation to quit being a pervert, I’m not sure what is.
In the other recent case of Anonymous’s deeds, they released a video in which they claimed that Los Zetas had kidnapped an Anon. Los Zetas is the second most powerful drug cartel in Mexico, and it is considered to be the “most violent drug cartel and paramilitary enforcement group in Mexico,” by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Anonymous had acquired the personal information of many members of the cartel and their collaborators in politics, police, military and business, says Robert Beckhusen of Wired.com. Unless the Anon hostage was released, Anonymous threatened to release this information, which would lead to their prosecution by the Mexican authorities or even by rival cartels. Anonymous followed up this threat “by defacing the website of former Tabasco state prosecutor Gustavo Rosario Torres, accused by anti-crime activists three years ago of discussing a $200,000 cocaine deal with a deputy on audio tape,” says Beckhusen. On November 4, 2011, the Anon was freed, according to an article on msnbc.com. I’d like to see our government attempt to get even one of the member’s information. Ten points for Anonymous.
Anonymous was able to get information on Los Zetas that even the government could not acquire. This is an incredible display of their power. Although, it is difficult to say whether or not Anonymous’s activity should be accepted and allowed. Even though they commit crimes to reveal corruption and for the betterment of the Americans’ right to freedom (at least many of them do), they are still breaking the law. And not all of what they do is noble. I think of them as sort of unstable and less righteous version of the Boondock Saints. Except instead of the MacManus twins murdering to expel crime and evil from Boston, hundreds or thousands of Anons hack to reiterate their freedom of speech and to end Internet censorship…and to occasionally screw people over for the lulz. But, they do not do so through violent means. Gandhi, Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are advocators of civil disobedience. Now, I’m not saying that Anonymous is the modern day Gandhi, trust me. It doesn’t come close. But Gandhi, Parks and MLK are examples of people who use civil disobedience for good rather than evil. Many subgroups of Anonymous may be wreaking havoc among the technological world, but the majority (or so it seems) of Anons work together well enough to accomplish extraordinary and beneficial things, even if they are illegal. Deciding whether or not to support Anonymous is a tough decision, but you have to know the reasons behind what they do. Some of their cruel acts have a moral purpose. This doesn’t necessarily make these acts OK, but no one else is working to stop such corruption. I support Anonymous, as it is the first Internet superconscience, using the power of its collective members to fight against corruption in higher powers. However, they can be dangerous. Remember: We do not forgive. We do not forget.
Annabella Palopoli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org