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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.