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    Default [eBook/ANONYMOUS Article] Beyond WikiLeaks

    Read the article here, and/or Download the $68.00 eBook FREE (Beyond WikiLeaks: Implications for the Future ofCommunications, Journalism and Society)


    Anonymous and the Politics of Leaking
    by, Gabriella Coleman[


    Once used exclusively to refer to people who staged fearsome Internet pranks, today the name “Anonymous” belongs to many individuals and groups engaging in diverse genres of collective action, ranging from online stunts and political campaigns to expediting in-person protests. Their interventions have included protesting the Church of Scientology, hacking into servers to scour for politically worthwhile information to leak, and providing technological support for citizens in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya during the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions.

    Anonymous, despite its broad array of tactics, is often described by a rather narrow band of words: hackers, hacking, and hacktivism. But in contrast to other political groups associated with such activities, such as WikiLeaks, Anonymous is in fact more open and participatory, the name free to all and accommodating those with or without technical skills (Coleman, 2011 ; 2012 ).

    Nevertheless, by the summer of 2011, smaller, more exclusive groups of hackers became prominent fixtures within the Anonymous landscape and thanks to media obsessed with hackers (Thomas, 2003 ), these groups were catapulted into the limelight. Whether individual participants liked it or not, Anonymous became synonymous with hacktivism, hackers, and hacks. Among Anonymous participants (commonly referred to as “Anons”), these hacker crew s and individuals provoked considerable controversy and anxieties.

    They were encouraged or at minimum tolerated, often in the hopes they could provide politically significant leaks in much the same way as WikiLeaks. But as members of these groups such as Topiary and Sabu built prominent and extensive public profiles on Twitter and elsewhere, a notable number of Anons were disappointed, some even outraged, with what they saw as their personal self-promotion. The cultivation of fame clashed with a robust anticelebrity sentiment so central to Anonymous.

    This chapter considers the tension between the anticelebrity ethic common to Anonymous and the growing visibility of their politics of hacking and leaking. “WikiLeaks,” media scholar Finn Burton (2011) perceptively insists, “commands attention now, but, if it is to be truly successful, it will be the first word rather than the last, the advent of a method rather than the founding of a lone institution.”

    Anonymous – although organizationally and ethically distinct from WikiLeaks – carried forward the experiment with leaking. Unlike WikiLeaks, a life project built over many years, the leaking within Anonymous arose organically over the course of mere months due to accidental discoveries and took a distinct course from WikiLeaks, which distributed leaks sourced from others. Hacker groups within Anonymous tended to seek materials themselves, rather than calling for whistle-blowers to pass data on to them. Unlike Wikileaks, whose founders were adamant that it was a legitimate media organization, Anonymous was not seeking to construct its actions as a journalistic endeavour.

    Anonymous-led hacking and leaking, which received more consistent media coverage than other Anonymous campaigns, were still made possible with what WikiLeaks had set into motion and also were limited and shaped by Anonymous-bred ethical imperatives.

    The lulzy birth of Anonymous

    If one term embodies the seemingly paradoxical and contradictory character of Anonymous it is lulz (a corruption and pluralization of “lol,” or “laugh out loud”). Lulz is Internet slang for something done “for the laughs.” Lulz activities stretch from “safe for work” jokes and memes such as adorable LOLcats to sordid NSFW (“not safe for work” and thus potentially offensive or obscene) content to the most fearsome of trolling attacks, from invading other online forums with memes and spam, to ordering hundreds of pizzas, taxis, and possibly SWAT teams to the houses of any number of random unfortunates considered to be fun targets for the proponents of lulz.

    Before 2008, the name Anonymous was used almost exclusively on the image board 4chan.org to deliver pranks – to “troll,” in Internet parlance, targeting people and organizations, desecrating reputations, and revealing humiliating information, and it was done in the name of the lulz (Knuttila, 2011 ).

    Modelled on the Japanese image board Futaba Channel, 4chan is composed of over fifty topic-based forums, ranging from anime to health and fitness, and has long been perceived to be one of the most offensive quarters of the Internet. The “random” forum, /b/, teems with pornography, racial slurs, and lulzy humour derived from defilement and an anything-goes attitude. Anonymous was so well known for its trolling that in 2007 Fox News dubbed Anonymous and 4chan as the “Internet hate machine” populated by “hackers on steroids.”

    Anons, pleased with the attention, released a video, a grim parody that took cues from Hollywood-style slasher flicks, proclaiming Anonymous “the face of chaos,” laughing “in the face of tragedy.” It was meant as an ironic, snide jest, but it also captured trolling’s terrifying potential, especially for those not in on the joke. It was hard to imagine that six months after this video’s release, others would seize the ethic of anonymity and concomitant iconography – headless men and women in black suits – to coordinate strident and earnest forms of protest.

    The activism began soon after Anonymous started trolling the Church of Scientology in January 2008, impelled by Scientology’s threats to sue websites that refused to take down an internal recruitment video of Tom Cruise praising the church’s efforts to “create new and better realities.” The video was supposed to be serious and persuasive and use Cruise’s celebrity to legitimate Scientology, but Internet geeks (and most others) saw it as a hilarious (and lulzy) attempt to bestow credibility on pseudoscience.

    The video promptly went viral. It was clear that Anonymous’s willingness to wreak havoc in pursuit of lulz was also, at least incipiently, done in defence of free speech and in opposition to the deceptions of Scientology. Statements such as the following, taken from an Anonymous IRC (IRC is a type of online chat room), crystallized the revolutionary, activist spirit beginning to take shape:

    <Su> The ultimate scenario: Anonymous prank call + DDoS [Distributed Denial of Service attack, a method of pooling the resources of many computers in order to flood websites with traffic and temporarily render them inoperable], US and French Government renew fraud charges, tax evasions, and illegal activities charges, local Church pastors telling their congregation the evils of Scientology, former members and families interviewed on TV about experience, activist groups holding licensed rallies and protests, and the news covering all of the above with independent ...
    <Su> Keep in mind this is war of attrition. We can not bankrupt Scientology directly – this is about getting media attention, informing the public, wearing down their members, pissing off their IT/phone services, counter-brainwash their potential recruits, and for lulz.

    Soon after these distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks and pranks, Anonymous shifted from (as one participating Anon explained to my class) purely delivered “ultra-coordinated motherfuckary” to dissemination of incriminating facts about Scientology and forging bonds with an older generation of dissidents highlighting the church’s use of censorship and abuse of human rights.

    Trolling had thus given birth to an earnest activist endeavour, as if Anonymous had emerged from its online sanctuary and set out to improve the world. Ironically, Anonymous’s political awakening was aided by the distribution of “Message to Scientology,” a video made for the lulz alone that lampoons Scientology and calls for a “systematic” dismantling of the church for “our own enjoyment."

    The video, one of many urging people to take action against the church, provoked a lengthy discussion among Anons in IRC rooms about whether they should protest in earnest or remain faithful to their deviant roots; they decided to hold street demonstrations. And so on February 10, 2008, an estimated 7,000 Anons and supporters hit the streets in over 127 cities around the world for a day of action against Scientology, events straddling the line between serious political protest and carnivalesque shenanigans.

    Although the protests were exceedingly well organized – websites were brimming with detailed organizational information and dozens of beautifully designed flyers to download, and IRC channels teeming with life as participants coordinated the global day of protests – many arrived lacking substantial knowledge about the Church and its abuses, much less any intention of becoming activists. After collectively staging a successful demonstration and arming themselves with relevant knowledge, many returned for subsequent protests.

    This decision to continue to protest the Church, however, was not only a matter of individual desire and personal dispositions. The formation of a political will was sparked, in part by the success of the street demonstrations and especially the media coverage they received, a dynamic repeated many times in the history of Anonymous (Phillips, 2012 ).

    That evening, women and men in Guy Fawkes masks and black suits with signs announcing “We Are the Internet” could be seen on cable news shows around the world. Hundreds of photos and dozens of homemade videos from local protests were shared on Facebook, Internet Relay Chat, and Twitter. For many Anons, the campaign – and especially the reports circulating through both the backwaters of the Internet and the mainstream media – validated what came to be known as Project Chanology.

    Protests against Scientology’s crackdown on its critics, especially those who dared to disclose or circulate internal documents (which the church refers to as “secret scriptures”) continued. Other Anons, satisfied with a lulzy day of action, simply returned from whence they came, the Internet; many of them now contest Anonymous’s current political sensibility, deriding their peers as “moralfags” on 4chan, preferring to troll and trade in pornography.

    But the seeds of irreverence and deviance had been sown in Anonymous, and ever since, some degree of lulz, pranking, and tricksterism have still marked the operations of politically minded “moralfags.” So, over the course of a few months, the denizens of one of the Internet’s seediest corners unexpectedly engendered a political movement. Many Anons started to self-identify as bona fide activists, albeit with an irreverent flair. Unrelated nodes would emerge, thus the name ‘Anonymous’ became an example of what media scholars define as an improper name: “The adoption of the same alias by organized collectives, affinity groups, and individual authors”.

    Over the course of a few years, the concept of Anonymous was mobilized by various political networks, and activists spearheaded dozens upon dozens of operations that would bring the attention of governments and media outlets the world over.

    Botnets for justice and the revenge of the Lulz

    <biella> i dont know how deep to ask about botnets
    <g> it’s an integral part of irc hacker culture
    <biella> yea it is
    <g> which is what we grew out of
    <g> mixed with strong dose of 4chan
    (Conversation on AnonOps IRC)

    Anonymous is distinctive for its organic political evolution, along with its feral, lulzy tricksterism and expert online organizing. The entity’s organizing principles – anonymity (technically pseudo-anonymity), and the existence of multiple and often unrelated nodes of communication, make it difficult to assess how many people are involved.

    Participation is fluid. Anonymous includes hackers who break into systems, and others who stage denial of service attacks upon websites. These attacks are commonly augmented by the use of botnets. A botnet is a large collection of compromised computers, connected to a central command and control server from which the botnet owner can use the bandwidth and resources of all the compromised machines simultaneously to release crippling DDoS attacks on other servers.

    But hackers are only a subset of Anonymous. Many more people contribute in other ways, by editing videos, penning manifestos, or publicizing actions on any number of social networking platforms. Lacking an overarching vision and strategy, Anonymous usually operates reactively and tactically, along the lines proposed by Michel de Certeau. “It is always on the watch for opportunities that must be seized ‘on the wing,’” he writes in The Practice of Everyday Life (1980). “Whatever it wins, it does not keep. It must constantly manipulate events in order to turn them into ‘opportunities.’ The weak must continually turn to their own ends forces alien to them” (ibid.).

    This approach could otherwise potentially devolve into unfocused operations that dissipate the group’s collective strength. It is unsurprising, then, that nearly every commentator or journalist – including myself in my earlier writings – describes Anonymous as inaccessible, inchoate, and spectral, identifying its defining attribute as the provocative spirit of the lulz.

    To be sure, no single group or individual can monopolize the name and iconography, much less claim legal ownership over them, and its next steps are difficult to predict. But Anonymous is made possible due to a stable foundation of labour and friendships, skills and capacities, and technologies and infrastructure, including servers, botnets, and Internet Relay Chat platforms. Operations may be tactical, but they do not simply spring out of the ether and can often be easily linked to a particular network, such as AnonOps, AnonNet, or VoxAnon, to take three of the most important at the time of writing.

    At minimum, these networks usually will lay claim to, or deny that they are the source of, an operation. One of the largest, most stable, and especially most prolific networks of the last year is AnonOps. Founded in autumn 2010, that December it earned the spotlight for mobilizing thousands to protest the actions of PayPal and MasterCard. Anons targeted these corporate pay portals after it appeared that they had bowed to governmental pressure to stop processing donations to WikiLeaks, which had become (in)famous for Cablegate, the release of scores of hitherto secret diplomatic cables. After someone announced the operation on a blog, news spread on 4chan and Twitter, and once officially reported by established media outlets, it attracted at first hundreds, and then thousands of participants, spectators, researchers, journalists, and, most likely, government agents.

    One Anon told me they too were taken aback at the multitude that had arrived at their shores. Such large numbers could participate since AnonOps operates in a more open manner than WikiLeaks. Technical elites maintain a platform, notably IRC servers, that is an apt example of what sociologists of social movements define as a “free space” – a place where alternative identities can be forged, skills are developed, and associative ties are nurtured, all of which, under the right circumstances, might be mobilized for collective action (Polletta, 1999 ).

    AnonOps encouraged the use of a tool, Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC), which individuals could use to contribute to the DDoS campaign. This openness does not necessarily entail transparency. As with most Anon-based DDoS operations, botnets are the real ammunition – a fact not exactly publicized. One participant put it in no uncertain terms: “The heavy lifting was done by a few people in the background [with botnets], using the masses with LOIC basically as cover for their activities.” Although the technical work of bringing down websites was coordinated by a select number of participants using botnets, a huge cohort of individuals also joined in the attack with LOIC.

    When used in December 2011, LOIC lacked privacy protections, so unless users took extra measures, it also put them at legal risk – something they were not informed of consistently. But participants were also able to feel collectively empowered by attacking the front-end websites of large corporations (back-end transaction processing infrastructure usually remained unaffected) and this mass participation rendered visible the level and extent of deep disenchantment with the corporate acts of censorship of WikiLeaks. This spontaneous gathering was one of the first large demonstrations conducted on the Internet; Anonymous provided the key infrastructure and a political vocabulary to channel and render visible the discontent over PayPal’s and MasterCard’s actions.

    Even if DDoS attacks lean heavily on individuals with technical skills and capacities, these individuals are not vested with the power to commandeer every single operation. On IRC, where many operations are coordinated and discussed, users are generally afforded the freedom to initiate their own operations and channels. While the network founders and staff can and do ban individuals or a channel, or discourage an operation from flourishing, most IRC networks have a long tradition – and this is no different with Anonymous – of a laissez faire, hands off approach to the creation of new chat rooms by the users. Those who manage and control technical resources do wield extra power (admins can and do ban users with some frequency and will do so for violating explicit rules, informal norms, and over petty personal disagreements), but there is no one group with the authority to control and command the dozens of operations.

    Still, when it comes to single operations, there usually are, as one Anon put it, “ad hoc leaders” who, if they stick around and continue to work, become prominent and trusted figures. Every operation has its own history and organizational culture, and of course the technologically naive rely on participants with technical skills. But individuals with fewer technical skills can and do become prominent operators and ad hoc leaders. One of the initiators of a key operation in the Middle East that provided technology assistance to revolutionary activists seeking to topple a dictatorial regime in January 2011 was neither a skilled systems administrator nor a hacker, but started the campaign, which he explained as follows during an IRC conversation:

    <biella> but i am trying to figure out how it is that people come to start working with others and trusting each other
    <biella> you seemed like a good person to ask as you have been around for a long time, know lots of folks, etc etc. it is just is so enigmatic and perhaps that is what it is
    <a> well i think either doing something that gains you respect and in the process gets you ‘friends’
    <a> also if people help me i feel inclined to help in return
    <biella> so what is an example of something you did that gained that respect (ofc keep it legal :-))
    <biella> and also can you elaborate on the ‘friends’ bit
    <a> well i founded and coordinated op ##
    <biella> ok, yep, i can see why that would gain respect ;-)
    <biella> i did not know that
    <a> so i worked very hard for a while 4hrs sleep a night online 20hrs a day
    <a> for 2ish weeks
    <biella> and people started contributing and you all felt prolly close as a result
    <a> yeah so up popped some individuals – who are now ‘famous’ and said can we help and i worked with them
    <biella> like hacker types you mean?
    <a> yeah ;)

    Prompted by the Tunisian government’s blocking of WikiLeaks, Anonymous announced OpTunisia on January 2, 2011. Anonymous leaned on a technical elite who could attack government websites and jam programs used by the dictatorial regime to spy on their citizens. They soon began acting more like a human rights advocacy group, enabling citizens to circumvent censors and evade electronic surveillance and sending care packages – created by the activist organization Telecomix – with advice and security tools.

    This operation helped catalyze the string of Anonymous-led interventions in the Middle East, dubbed the Freedom Ops. By the end of January 2011, AnonOps seemed to be devoting itself entirely to activist campaigns, and some Anons lamented the waning of the lulz. Though many Anons were invigorated by contributing to the historic toppling of dictatorial regimes in the Middle East, for others there could be no clearer evidence that, in Anonymous, the “moralfags” were now in the ascendant.

    Then came Operation HBGary, which replenished the lulz and laid the groundwork for future hacking and leaking. In February, Aaron Barr, CEO of the HBGary Federal security firm, claimed to have “pwned” (compromised) Anonymous, discovering the real identities of top operatives. It was reported in the Financial Times, he was ready to hand these over to the FBI.

    In response, Anons commandeered Barr’s Twitter account and used it to spew 140-character racial slurs while following the accounts of Justin Bieber, Gay Pride, and Hitler. They hacked HBGary servers and downloaded 70,000 e-mails and deleted files, purportedly wiped out Barr’s iPhone and iPad, and then published the company’s data alongside Barr’s private communications. Anonymous unearthed a document entitled “The WikiLeaks Threat,” which outlined how HBGary, in conjunction with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Bank of America, and other security companies, might undermine WikiLeaks by submitting fake documents to the site. There was also evidence of plans to ruin the careers of WikiLeaks supporters, among them Salon. com writer Glenn Greenwald.

    What started with retaliatory trolling ended up exposing what seemed to be a conspiracy so damning that members of Congress called for an investigative committee. Given that these were private firms, the evidence obtained by hackers could never have been procured through legal channels such as a Freedom of Information Act request. The necessarily clandestine nature of such hacks was also criticized by those who saw it as counter to the ethos of transparency. At the time, however, most Anons were thrilled. After the hack, hundreds of Anonymous onlookers watched and discussed the flurry of trolling events on IRC, describing it as a “triumph":

    <A5> NPR asked me who did HBGary
    <A5> I told them “a team of Anonymous ninjas.”
    <A17> HAHA
    <A17> yes!
    <AF> LOL
    <A6> lol nice
    <A28> lmfao
    <A17> This is a triumph

    The message to Anonymous participants and onlookers was clear: Anonymous had now become Human Rights Watch; the pursuit of a more “mature” agenda did not mean parting way with the lulz. This celebrated hack inspired technological elites to continue in this style, first with a breakaway group, LulzSec, and subsequently with Operation Antisec. This mode of hacking – publicly breaking into servers to expose security flaws and access politically sensitive information – had been uncommon to AnonOps, though other techniques, such as web defacing, were occurring (though covertly).

    Operation HBGary’s success helped launch wings of Anonymous composed of smaller, more exclusive hacker crews dedicated to exposing security vulnerabilities and generating disclosures of e-mails and documents, further aligning the hackers with the goals of WikiLeaks. As one Anon put it, quite succinctly: “Operation HBGary was so explosive that there was a serious thirst for more.” These groups received an extraordinary amount of media coverage, particularly due to a remarkable 50-day hacking spree by the first of these groups, LulzSec, which was only loosely associated with Anonymous.

    Many Anons watched with glee as LulzSec unabashedly humiliated corporate giants and governments; their targets ranged from security contractors like Infragard, to PBS, the CIA, Sony Pictures, and the United States Department of Justice. The mood eventually soured after LulzSec retired and a new group, Antisec (composed of many of the same individuals) arose and rejoined Anonymous. They were tolerated for their potential political yields, such as leaks, but eventually, as we will see below, they were disliked by some for how they put the collective’s ethical principles at risk through their cultivation of individual fame and status and their seemingly scattershot choice of targets to attack.

    Ethics: e pluribus unum

    [The] bottom line should be whether he tries to front [him]self off as a “leader” or “official” spokesperson, or “just” another anon supporter/volunteer. If he claims, or implies, some “special” status in group, without consensus of the group, that is definitely fucked up. [On the other hand], he seems very prolific and assertive, so by sheer dint of exposure, could become “known as a “spokesperson", whether he claims this is “official” or not. (Excerpt from a collaborative document assessing the role of Barrett Brown, an Anon who frequently appeared on the news on behalf of Anonymous and was seen to become a media personality.)

    When individuals collaborate, they invariably craft ethical principles – both informal and explicit values guiding action and interaction. Even if Anonymous resists formalizing ethical mandates, morals still take hold. Among Anons the revelation of self and especially the accumulation of individual public prestige is taboo (Coleman, 2012 ; Wesch, 2011 ).

    They replace attainment of individual recognition or fame with the attainment of it for the group as a whole – credit goes to Anonymous, not to any individual. Violations of this principle are often met with harsh public criticism and even banning from particular IRC networks. Anonymous may be politically a multitude – its name free to be taken by anyone, but ethically it is configured as e pluribus unum : Out of many, one.

    For Anons, anonymity is sometimes an abstraction; at other moments they instantiate it via action. In preparing an op-ed, dozens of Anons contributed their thoughts about the power and limits of anonymity. Here is just one of more than a dozen musings on anonymity within a collaboratively produced digital document:

    What is important here is that the singular individual and his actions become subordinate to the “larger” yet anonymous result of the collective process that is the production of knowledge. It is the nameless collective and the procedures by which it is governed which in the end prevail over the necessarily biased and singleminded individual. Yet, at the same time, the individual’s ability to contribute to this communal process of the production of knowledge has never been greater before.

    I witnessed this ethic in practice dozens of times, once when I shared an article from a well-known national newspaper on the reporter IRC channel. Many participants on AnonOps were indignant that the featured Anon had revealed details about his personal life to the reporter, an infraction made worse by the fact that he had not substantially contributed to the recent DDoS operations. One of the Anon IRC operators assessed the situation as follows:

    “Attempting to use all the work that so many have done for your personal promotion is something i will not tolerate.”

    A number of Anons then called this person into a different channel, asked him to justify his actions. Unsatisfied with his answers, they kicked him off by z-lining (banning) him on this particular network. Even if this anticelebrity stance is a living ethos, it alone cannot prevent concentrations of power, and some Anons certainly think that power had pooled to an intolerable degree, even if they are not forthcoming on this subject to the media. If much of the labor in Anonymous is political, there is also considerable internal soul searching. This spring 2011 critique targeted the administrators who run AnonOps:

    – If there are no leaders, then who is there to wrest control from?
    – If there’s no leaders, why couldn’t everyone read PMs [private messages] in realtime?
    – If there’s no leaders, why couldn’t everyone set the target for the LOIC hivemind?
    – If there’s no leaders, why do opers [network staff] have to be respected, and why can I be kicked/banned for mentioning __ name too many times? Why can I be banned for making a joke that ___ doesn’t like?

    This list concludes, “The statement that AnonOps was a leaderless command structure is the most dishearteningly effortless lie I’ve ever had to read from an Anon.”

    This discontent at the perceived concentration of power in AnonOps continued, with groups of Anons agitating against the network, and this frustration grew over the course of 2011 with AnonOps’ promotion and support for elements such as the hacker group AntiSec (more on which below). In February 2012, some Anons, disillusioned with the current Anonymous IRCs, founded the new network VoxAnon. The founders released a Constitution stating the network’s purpose and the role of its technical guardians. Quoting a small section offers a rather precise sense not only of how these participants strove for a moral commonweal, but their awareness of the ways that technological capacities, realities, and skills constrain ethical realities:

    1. This Network upholds a policy of unconditional free speech, unless that speech poses a direct threat to the network. Such a threat must be proven.

    2. Network Administrators must not/are not allowed to interfere in channel management unless required to do so in order to prevent a direct threat to the network, or if the channel owner explicitly requests for a network administrator to do so.

    3. You have the right to privacy in private channels. No oper may join a private channel unless invited, or to prevent a direct threat to the existence of the network.

    At the time of this writing it is too early to predict how VoxAnon will fare, especially in comparison to other networks that favour implicit and tacit norms rather than explicit statements. But ethical life within Anonymous is everywhere predicated not only on ideals that run deep but also on experimentation, though with greater or lesser success and often in reaction to the rise of new patterns and possibilities.

    The summer of endless hacks

    "If we can get that level of information then we really are the private CIA lol.” – Greg Hoglund, Chief chief Technology technology Officer officer of government cybersecurity contractor HBGary Federal (comment shortly before being mercilessly hacked by Anonymous in February). As one of only a handful of outsiders in daily contact with Anonymous, I became an important conduit for information about their activities and history.

    Over the winter and spring of 2011, I gave over 70 interviews to journalists, students, and filmmakers, during which I routinely sought to stamp out misconceptions, especially those concerning hacking. I explained repeatedly that hacking is only one weapon of many that are employed by Anonymous, and some ops vehemently oppose hacking and even DDoSing. Anonymous, I insisted, also engages in other work: writing stirring press releases and manifestos, designing propaganda posters, and making videos. After a certain point, however, no one was listening, and understandably.

    Beginning in May, but peaking in June, barely a day passed without major media outlet reporting a hack, defacement, or security leak. It became the summer of endless hacks. On Twitter, the hacker organization and publication 2600, whose website had been momentarily toppled by LulzSec, captured the mood in a mere 140 characters:

    “Hacked websites, corporate infiltration/scandal, IRC wars, new hackers groups making global headlines – the 1990s are back!”

    Hacking had been a tactic central to the AnonOps network, but it largely existed as an underground affair, coordinated in any number of invite-only IRC chat rooms. One particularly important private IRC chat room, #internetfeds, operated like a secret bunker of hackers, administrators who ran core infrastructure, and those with access to botnets. Though they contributed essential technical work, these hackers remained hidden.

    This all changed when some of the hackers involved in Internet Feds went on to form LulzSec, the first breakaway group to fuse hacking exploits with witty, often taunting, Twitter messages and entertaining videos featuring Internet memes such as Nyan cats and pirates. LulzSec distanced itself from Anonymous, partly due to the unfavourable reaction prompted by its infamous Sony PlayStation Network hack, controversial among Anons for targeting “innocent customers,” as one Anon explained it to me:

    They split initially because they wanted to do things which they knew would upset other Anons, that’s why LulzSec became LulzSec. After the Sony hack, they realized that such tactics would meet with a lot of irritation from Anons ... They wanted to continue with their “sledgehammer” approach, that being, attacking innocent customers as a way of totally destroying a company. [T]hey had to deal with the fallout of that hack and a lot of anger from Anons, it caused infighting and civil war, a LOT of drama. Would seem at that point that x just said “Look, this is going to happen every time we hack like this in the name of Anon so let’s relabel it and avoid clashing.

    Although some LulzSec participants were motivated by political causes – in fact, they conceptualized their work as following the WikiLeaks mold – they also felt constrained by AnonOps’ informal codes of conduct, such as the mandate to never attack the press (Olson, 2012 ). By breaking away from Anonymous, they could hack as they pleased, for whatever reason, without provoking disparaging rants from Anonymous: for the lulz, to make a political point, to expose the weak state of Internet security, or for all these reasons at once.

    On May 7, 2011, LulzSec initiated a 50-day hacking spree, first by targeting Fox News, then everything under the sun, from government agencies to television broadcasters. With constant coverage on TV news and newspaper front pages, hackers and hacking groups became the public (and notorious) face of Anonymous, even if other operations were ongoing and LulzSec had, for the time being, proclaimed its independence from Anonymous.

    On May 13, 2011, LulzSec declared on Twitter: “Must say again: we’re not AnonOps, Anonymous, a splinter group of Anonymous, or even an affiliate of Anonymous. We are #Lulzsec ”. Although LulzSec and Anonymous shared a kindred spirit, culture, and even some personnel, there was enough ideological distance between the two that many Anons, along with security professionals, geeks, activists, and hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, either seemed to genuinely enjoy their antics and supported them, or at least were compelled enough to watch the wild show LulzSec put on.

    This small crew of hackers, embroiled in their own dramas, eventually retired on June 25, 2011, but many of the same individuals subsequently banded under “Antisec.” Now, unlike what they had done with LulzSec, they branded themselves loud and proud as an Anonymous operation. While not forsaking deviant humour, the tone became more militant. Governments, law enforcement agencies, and private security firms were targeted in the name of political causes.

    As weeks turned into months, criticism mounted of Antisec’s defacements and hacks, even in the context of continued support. Antisec was seen as acting recklessly, and many were suspicious of its motives. Eventually, rumours swirled that Antisec might even be a false flag operation – that is, external saboteurs were using it to discredit and destabilize Anonymous. Antisec became gnarled in controversy among Anons with what was seen to be its cultivation of fame, individuals inside it building prominent public profiles. This sentiment is captured in the following “tale” relayed on IRC in September 2011 by one active Anon, right before quitting:

    <ha> wtf happened to #antisec
    <ha> let me tell you a story
    <ha> gather round kids
    <ha> Once upon a time there was a team of status fag hackers, most of which where okay as people, we all have our flaws. They came to be known as lulzsec
    <ha> These hackers decided it would be a good idea to use there [sic] status fag powers to gather anons against the infosec industry.
    <ha> It was then someone decided to give monkies machine guns and taught them the weakness of sql tables [a database system commonly used in websites]. These monkies decided they wanted to look good for lulzsec and hacked every possible thing they could, releasing all the information they plundered reguardless [sic] to such things as consequence and public realtions [sic].
    <ha> Private data leaked faster then WikiLeaks brand condom.
    <ha> They continued hacking away hoping to gain a pat on the back from Sabu.
    <ha> Then the summer vacation ended.
    <ha> They found themselves unable to continue there [sic] hackery as more pressing matters became apparent, such as who do i sit with during lunch and whats a cooler elective to take, french or band.
    <ha> Thus ends the saga of #antisec.

    Some Anons, like ha, slammed this status-seeking behaviour. However, others, even some of those critical of what they called “fame whoring” still stood by the crews’ actions, hoping Antisec would find (worthwhile) political leaks, or classified or secret information impossible to procure legally. It is rather unsurprising that Antisec was simultaneously respected, tolerated, and vilified.

    The name Anonymous is difficult to police, and many of these hackers had been an essential part of the Anonymous/AnonOps constellation. They became significant just when WikiLeaks seemed to be fading or crumbling from internal frictions and legal troubles. Antisec, it was hoped, could more directly challenge the power of corporations or governments, not simply by producing momentary spectacles as is the case with DDoS attacks, but by finding and releasing hard evidence of corporate or government malfeasance (although the act of hacking, like the DDoS, certainly also worked as spectacle).

    Some Anonymous participants had hopes that breakaway hacker groups such as Antisec would acquire and release data that would shed light on the shadowy world of the intelligence and cybersecurity industry, especially the “private CIA,” that is, corporations with government contracts to supply surveillance, data mining, and propaganda services to Western governments. This outsourcing is not entirely new. Pinkerton Government Services, to take one of the most famous examples, is an American security company that was established in 1850. Its operatives were routinely hired by the US government (and corporations) to break up unions.

    What is new is the extent of the industry and the lack of credible information about its operations. The intelligence contracting industry may now be at the centre of government security and intelligence work. So posits Tim Shorrock, one of the few investigative journalists to research this topic extensively. Yet information is scarce, as he explains:

    Outsourcing has become so pervasive that the Director of National Intelligence decided to study the phenomenon last year. But when the report was finally completed in April 2007, the results were apparently so stunning that the DNI vetoed the idea of putting out a report and instead told reporters that disclosure of the figures would damage national security.

    Although Antisec targeted many different organizations and engaged in other activities unrelated to leaking, they were one of the few groups prepared to tackle the murky world of government defence contractors. For better or worse, their activities were also magnified and amplified by constant media coverage. Among Anons, they commanded, if not exactly admiration, a hope or expectation of unveiling the inner workings of a world seemingly beyond democratic oversight: The three-letter-agencies, with their opaque budget allocations and their privatized and semi-privatized spin-offs and subsidiaries.

    After a year of hacking, news broke on March 6, 2012 that Sabu, the most famous of the LulzSec and Antisec hackers, was, subsequent to his arrest and at least since the late summer of 2011, working as an FBI informant. It confirmed the long-standing suspicion that informants had infiltrated Anonymous and that Antisec had been at least partly manipulated by government interests. Mistrust, always hanging over the Anonymous networks, thus started to give way to a bleaker, ominous paranoia.

    With many of its core members arrested, Antisec has, for now, taken a back seat. Other, smaller groups of hackers, LulzSec Reborn and the Ateam continue to deface, hack, and leak. A new leaking platform, Par: AnoiA (Potentially Alarming Research: Anonymous Intelligence Agency), with some participants from Antisec are now publishing leaks. Those currently involved are doing their work a little more quietly, leaving named individuals, even if pseudonymous, out of the equation.

    Conclusion

    In an age of atomization, when individuals seek profit or, at minimum, recognition for every expression and creation, Anonymous has captivated the public’s imagination precisely because it provides a provocative antithesis to the contemporary cult of celebrity.

    Nevertheless, Anonymous does not signal the reappearance of the mass political subject united by one program or aspiration. It is not a united front, but a multitude, a rhizome, a “hive mind” in the parlance of those participating, comprising numerous different networks and working groups that are often at odds with one another and displaying evidence of hierarchies, power bases among individuals, as well as cliques and elite groups.

    This is one reason Anonymous spawns new groups and networks, like VoxAnon and Antisec, and why new operations appear seemingly out of the blue: in one month, June 2012, interventions appeared in Quebec, India, and Japan.

    Every new network cultivates a distinct political culture. But Anonymous still shares some unifying ideals, such as the brazen spirit of lulz and its anticelebrity ethic, whereby the accumulation of individual public power and prestige is cast in a negative light; it is one of the core reasons that hacker groups who became so famous over the last year internally received so much flak.

    Anonymous thus is not just an array of political groups, a series of IRC servers, a collective of tricksters, hackers, and activists, and an Internet subculture. It represents a mindset, an adherence to a humourous aesthetic and a moral sensibility that binds participants the world over into one entity:

    Anonymous can, more than anything else, be described as an idea, and as was said by Topiary of LulzSec prior to his arrest:

    “You cannot arrest an idea.”

    Anonymous nevertheless manifests only through its diverse, often contradictory practices and tactics, from releasing videos and manifestos to forging alliances with other activists, as was the case when Anonymous became a prominent public relations mouthpiece for the Occupy movement.

    For well over a year, hacker groups part of, or affiliated with, Anonymous experimented with the activist tactic of hacking to leak, with many successes and failures. The most significant threat to their survival has been government crackdowns.

    Scores of hackers around the world have been arrested and face decades in jail. And while there have been some politically significant revelations released by the hacker groups over the years, the rising tide of leaks that many Anons and others had hoped for was never quite realized – in terms of high-impact leaks, they delivered more of a trickle than a flood. Their actions also shed light on constraints brought by media presence and status.

    For these hacker groups, spectacle was also essential for gaining attention, but perhaps media attention and column inches became an end in itself. With this came the constant need to outdo themselves, to surpass what had already been staged to prevent a fickle media turning its eye elsewhere.

    Antisec became trapped, needing to produce a dramatic show and at times exaggerating the importance of their leaks. On top of it, the media gave less attention to some Anonymous operations in favour of playing up others. In a frank moment of journalistic self-criticism, Quinn Norton ( 2012 ) reflects thoughtfully on myopias in the last year of Anonymous media coverage:

    Antisec, and LulzSec before it, enjoyed huge media attention from people like Olson and myself, to the point where they marginalized more effective anon ops around the Arab Spring and political resistance to anti-internet laws like ACTA – even when sometimes these ops were done by the same people ... We should have seen Antisec as one phenomenon among many, not as a group we could finally treat like rock stars, a group that made our job easy.

    Surely these hacker groups felt pressure to not disappoint, to not leave their audience waiting, and to make each new performance, each leak, more spectacular than the last. This might also explain why the choice of targets became more scattershot with time, the pressure to satisfy expectations an ever-growing factor.

    Though media presence is essential, it can become counterproductive to political movement building in general (Anderson 2011 , Gitlin 2003 ) and in specific for effective hacking, where choosing targets carefully and painstakingly gathering information that is worth leaking to the public becomes a harder or secondary task to sating the press and public hunger for more spectacle.

    Notes

    I would like to thank the editors of this volume, Danielle Citron, Whitney Phillips, and various Anonymous participants for their generous feedback.

    **** To see the rest of the BOOK, notes and video links, Download the $68.00 eBook FREE (Beyond WikiLeaks: Implications for the Future ofCommunications, Journalism and Society) ****

    0 Not allowed! Not allowed!
    Last edited by Smiley; 06-14-2013 at 09:15 PM.
    I did it for the lulz.
    I did it for the lulz.
    I did it for the lulz.

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