How To: Who Is Anonymous? How the Wall Street Journal and the NSA Got It Wrong

Who Is Anonymous? How the Wall Street Journal and the NSA Got It Wrong

Over the past couple of weeks, there have been a series of high-profile hacks and leaks. From the rooting of CombinedSystems, to a secret FBI conference call leak, all the way to the distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks on U.S. government sites—with a lot in-between. As governments move to close their long fingers around the free speech that exposes their secrets, this shadowy collective of loose-knit, but like-minded individuals are hell bent on preventing them. Or are they?

How do we know what Anonymous is and what it is not? From Facebook to Twitter to the Occupy movement, you get a radically different description of Anon based on who you ask. Even the Wall Street Journal is painting the picture of Anonymous as a boogeyman out to attack the power grid (a claim made by the NSA). Could this be true? This problem is further compounded by the fact that there is no one single group called Anonymous. I will repeat this—there is no one single group called Anonymous.

LulzSec, one of the other major hacker groups, is now compromised. Key members have been arrested and its leader Sabu is now working with the FBI. Still, Anonymous will continue on. Groups come and go, but the concept cannot be arrested. It's more like a bunch of individually owned businesses operating under a franchise. Ideas for attacks and operations are left up to people and groups to come up with and promote. If they do well and have wide-ranging support, they take place. 

Who Is Anonymous? How the Wall Street Journal and the NSA Got It Wrong

This begs the question, if the National Security Agency's claims are true and Anonymous wants to take down power grids and attack key Internet infrastructure, how would we know if it was them that did it? More importantly is the question of how would we know they didn't do it? All the back and forth in the media creates a near boogeyman-like entity people (and even governments) can hide behind. How do you tell who is who?

Despite what you might or might not think of the tactics and actions Anonymous has undertaken, to understand how baseless and false the NSA and WSJ's propaganda peddling really is, you need to step back behind all the media reports and take a look at what Anonymous really is—and isn't. How do you know which hacks are Anonymous, and which ones are being claimed as such for the sake of cover, propaganda, or fear?

To answer the question, let's dive into the history of how the group started.

A Long Time Ago, On an Imageboard Far, Far Away....

The idea of Anonymous is simple—freedom of speech and expression. Tracing the concept is a more complicated task. The embers started to glow on various imageboards. These were websites where people could post images and have discussion. No names were used and no registration was needed. There were no rules, only guidelines. Everyone was anonymous to everyone else. Some posts would grow and memes would form, while others would fade away and die, never to be heard from again. It is this open exchange of information that allowed ideas to flourish. You were no one, yet at the same time you were everyone. The only thing that mattered were the ideas.

When you're allowed to have a name, it takes the focus away from the content itself and puts the focus on you as the creator of that content.

The users of these boards, united together by their views and thoughts, formed the first entity that can be called Anonymous. You have to understand the motivation behind what attracted people to imageboards like these, in order to understand the motivation of the current day Anonymous. Without a check on free speech, people could say and post whatever they wanted. This free marketplace of ideas grew and prospered as more and more people started posting and discussing topics openly. Soon the sense of "anonymous" was born. The idea that you don't have to be someone to be anyone.

It's anarchy at its most vibrant core.

Not a group, but a brand. Not a club, but a franchise. Just a group of people that have the same ideas. When they come together in a united cause...

Tom Cruse, Scientology, and Robbing the Masses

The date was January 2008, and the Internet world was laughing at Tom Cruse. An internal Scientology video starring him had been leaked to YouTube. The church said the video was copyrighted and requested that YouTube remove it. Needless to say, Anonymous took this as an insult to free speech and blasted the 'Church' over its practices. This tit for tat between members of Anonymous and Scientology resulted in Project Chanology.

Soon, the collective began launching attacks against Scientology websites, blanketing church centers with prank phone calls and faxes, and "doxing" the church by releasing its sensitive documents into the public domain. 

Right after the Cruise video surfaced, another video set the template for future Anonymous proclamations. The video, which criticized the Church of Scientology, includes the now-common Anonymous sign-off: "Knowledge is free. We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us."

The next month, Anonymous claimed that 7,000 people had staged protests outside of Scientology centers around the world, many of them sporting the now-famous, black-and-white Guy Fawkes mask.

Who Is Anonymous? How the Wall Street Journal and the NSA Got It Wrong

Operation Payback

Operation Payback started back in 2010 when a few non-Anonymous affiliated groups decided to launch their own DDoS attacks on various P2P file-sharing sites and torrent hosts. In light of these, Anonymous started launching their own denial attacks on anti-piracy sites in retaliation. This grew and grew as social media outlets picked up on a wave of public support on the Internet. Soon, a full-scale war was brewing as Anonymous went on a spree taking down major pro-copyright and anti-piracy organization websites, leaving a trail in their wake.

Who Is Anonymous? How the Wall Street Journal and the NSA Got It Wrong

Later that year, in December, it was discovered via leaked U.S. cables that certain banks and financial institutions has blocked WikiLeaks from using their services, essentially trying to dry up all donations and funding in a failed attempt to bring them down. Anonymous acted swiftly, bringing down Paypal, Visa, MasterCard and a host of others. Downtime varied and some were out for over a day. Soon after, the FBI began arresting people suspected in taking part on the attacks.

The Great Shitstorm of 2011

In February 2011, Aaron Burr, the CEO of HBGary Federal, announced that his firm had successfully infiltrated the Anonymous group, and said he would reveal his findings at a later conference in San Francisco. He later made a proposal to the FBI, offering to sell the report.

Having logged chats in the Anonops IRC channels, he put together an entire brief on Anonymous, stating its very nature of openness would be its downfall and he was going to explain why. His downfall was—he did this publicly as Anonymous responded by hacking into the company, defacing the website and Twitter account, and lastly stealing personal and company emails right out from under Mr. Burr.

How the Wall Street Journal Got It Wrong

As was pointed out in an Anonops media release just days after the WSJ published the NSA's propaganda piece, the effects are contrary to the goals of Anonymous. Attacks on power grids would hurt millions of people who depend on it. Hospitals need power to keep people alive. Attacks on these people would be beyond foolish and would never be considered.

Some rumors abound about attacks on the infrastructure of the Internet and these have also been flagged as false. Anonymous depends on the Internet to function; taking down root name servers would be about the same shooting yourself in the foot.

Anonymous is neither the white knight nor the evil villain. If anything, anonymous is chaotic neutral, united by the fundamental idea that information should be free.

Questions? Comments? Leave me a message below, here, or in the forum!

Just updated your iPhone? You'll find new features for Podcasts, News, Books, and TV, as well as important security improvements and fresh wallpapers. Find out what's new and changed on your iPhone with the iOS 17.5 update.

Photos by Lisam, Netcraft, Craigs, Anonymous Hamburg


Great write up on the history. The name anonymous serves as both a blessing and a curse as anyone can claim it. More and more it is becoming an easy scapegoat for nefarious deeds that stand in direct conflict with the roots of the movement. Understanding the roots really brings to light how bizarre it would be to think that the people behind the movement for freedom of information would want to shut down power or the internet. This is the same movement that helped bring unfettered access to the web in Egypt when the governments tried to shut it off.

I think your description of chaotic neutral is spot on, though I get the sense that there is a set of fundamental moral values that drives the true core of the movement (even of a few individual outliers take it too far).

Excellent article. I was just trying to explain Anon to a friend today, having a hard time with what exactly to tell her. I'll definitely just send her this article..

Great piece here! I look up to Anon not because of their methods, but because of their motives. Their methods are sketchy, but it is insane to think that these hacking incidents are worth over 100 years in prison. While Congress is busy working on reforming DNS and making the internet unstable, I think we really need to look more into the crime and punishment section of reform. This image ( embodies everything that is wrong with our legal system: it isn't written for a digital age. If someone vandalized a billboard, they won't get much time. If someone vandalizes a web page, they get years. If someone blocks traffic anywhere, even at #occupy protests where they obstruct passage, it's called a protest. If someone DOS attacks a web site, it's a crime. The same thing can be repeated for many more topics, such as piracy and information theft. The fact that it is digital should not affect the penalty.

So in a way. Agreeing is being, Anonymous. It started of as a specific group then grew into an identity of various groups who use the same label?

I don't even think they're many groups. Anonymous is a collection of individuals with the same purpose and methodology in mind. It's more......widespread than a group per-se.

Excellent piece Allen.

The problem with Anonymous is, who are they. Are they really people trying to keep information free, or are they a Chinese hacking group probing US sites in preparation for a cyber attack?
Or maybe Anonymous is just what they claim to be, But because of the high profile leaks, attempts by rouge members to extort money, or 'shut down' sites that don't agree with their particular ideology has given the government the excuse it needs to crack down on the chaotic nature of the Internet.
In vowing to fight against information security, they have become what they are fighting against. An elite group of unknown people who believe they don't have to answer to anyone. (Sounds like Wall Street).

For every action, there is a reaction. And the reaction is not always proportional to the initial action.

My other problem is, I have difficulty trusting anyone wearing a mask. And anyone who says that they don't have the same issue, ask yourself this. What is the fist thing that comes to your mind when someone with their face covered confronts you?

Good point. I agree on that Anonymous are becoming what they're fighting against. But then you must also ask: why are they doing it? Is the current state so bad that only such attacks/leaks can bring justice to the system?
In my opinion, its a yes, and I fear it's only going to get worse.

I still haven't decided who's side they are on yet. And it wouldn't be the first time a group was started by a government to recruit people with certain skill sets, only to catalog those people. While I don't believe this is the case, it is a possibility.
A large number of very talented people are flocking to the Anon movement, but, is it really a movement or 'an opportunity' for the government to size up the opposition? It's really a mess, and with good attorneys and press coverage, right now Anon can be made out to be whatever is convenient.

They are good until they're bad.
The nature of Anon means (IMO) they almost embody "the ends justify the means". If you agree with the things they are doing and saying, it doesn't matter who is says or does them.
I think that there are problems facing our beloved internet.
I think that somebody other than Anon might be solving them better.
I think that while they aren't doing the job they need to do, I am glad for Anon.
I am not legion.. I am one guy with a brain who cares.

I agree with you 100%, the world needs more "people with brains who care" and less "people who follow the flock with the rest of the sheep"

It's very difficult to argue that the ends justifies the means, because if this were true, every nation on the planet would have an excuse to do what they will, because in the past, it has been done to them and they are taking action to stop it from happening again. China could silence anyone it believes is spreading information that could lead to the end of communist rule. Just because we believe communism is bad, doesn't mean it is. Personally, the ideal of communism is great. Everyone shares in the success or failure of the country. But because of the fallibility of man, it doesn't work. A dictatorship is a much more efficient means of government that a republic or democracy. No arguing, decisions are made to protect the state and it's people. This is the allure of this form of government. Things start getting done and getting done quickly. Soon everybody is happy... Until the dictator starts putting his own interests in front of everything else.

I was trying to say that without a face, without a leader to turn into a dictator, the anonymous movement IS the means. So if you want the end they promote, you might as well agree with anonymous. Which is why until is would appear that the goals of the movement have changed, it doesn't matter who they are it matters what they say and do.

But that lack of organization is also turning into their downfall. Rogue members or persons claiming to be members are committing crimes under the name Anonymous. The average member of the public, while not completely trusting the government, does tend to believe what they see on tv. Some hacks they have performed have people people lives at risk. I live in a high crime city and while we don't blindly trust the police department to always have our best interests at heart, when ever there is a gang shooting (almost daily), the police are who we call. And when they are compromised, we feel compromised by proxy.

I think you can say that corruption is everywhere, but the fluid nature of anon allows for this argument to be made: since anonymous is a movement promoting certain goals and ideals and is not a group of its own anyone, even people who claim to be "anonymous", who act in contradiction of anon's principles are not actually anonymous. Things get hairy and semantic at about this point so I don't want to get into it, but I hope you see what I'm saying...

informaton should be free for everyone. People should be free 2 think and say whatever they truley believe. People these days are either to scared to speak up against injustice for fear of standing alone, or worse- have followed the flock for so long they have become incapable of independant thought! Its easily the biggest tragedy of our time! Standing by and doing nothing in the face of injustice is bad- Not even being aware enough of the world around u to question the reasons, motives or real direction of the path ur being herded along, the 'truths' ur told to believe in or the absurdity behind our 'desire' to have all the latest 'must have' items of today. That is much worse! How can u not at least wonder why we are lied to, decieved, distracted from seeking any knowledge, truth or belife other than the one that has been put in front of us? Even if ur senses have been dulled to the point of not being able to come up with the answers, surely u must still be able to comprehend the gross injustice huminaty is suffering at the command of our world 'leaders'! They r leading us all right, but for what agenda, to what purpose and to whos benefit? The day i saw the movie v for vendeta, i had an epiphony- Humanity as a whole outnumbers the powers that be, therefore if ppl stand together for humanity, justice and truth....then humanity, justice and truth will prevail! Theres so much to learn from this world, use ur brain, think for yourself and u will be surprised how much u have been missing by following the sheep! discover ur own beliefs by empowering yourself with knowledge, listen to all views then u decide whats believable to you. Xox

Well put Lana, it always makes me wonder how so much injustice can happen and so many people can stand by and watch.

I do wonder who "they" is in your post?

lol. "they" is open to ur own interpretation, they is whoever chooses to dominate, dictate or controll any number of people under the guise they and their ideals are 'right' and people should follow their dictation in order to do the 'right thing' and be accepted in society. Personaly i see an awfull lot of 'wrongs' being passed off as 'right' that i rather not compromise my own ideals or morals to belong to a society like that. Yes, it is a matter of oppinion! To that society- i am 'wrong' But to me- they r wrong! I live my life with honesty, values and morals, if that makes me wrong, so be it.

Sometimes you just do it for laughs.

just like the gov they dont tell every thing that is going to happen think about it for a sec maybe they wanted this so ppl would not fear them and when the time is right they hit and hit hard

Thanks for the kind words, We're big fans of the work you done. We just followed you on Twitter as well and hope to connect soon.

Share Your Thoughts

  • Hot
  • Latest