Just when everyone thought that these techies were completely lost in a virtual world dominated by hardware, software, video games, and cyberspace disregarding, or so we thought, absolutely everything based in reality, they stunned us into realising that the very opposite was true. The shockwaves of their surfacing voice has been felt by individuals and governments all throughout the world. Who would have though it possible?
While the collective of cyber-punks started out picking on prepubescent preteens like Jessi Slaughter, who after posting a series of rather cringe worthy videos of herself addressing her “haters”, became the object of internet slander and “trolling”, it is fair to say that the internet-junkies operating under the Anonymous banner have grown up since their 4chan origins. Albeit, the “cyber-police” threats from Slaughter’s late fathermay actually pan out to be quite real.
Since the Slaughter controversy, Anonymous targets sequentially reveal the political awakening of the tech-geek; from protesting against the Church of Scientology with “Project Chanology”, to attacks directed at the Australian government when it introduced a bill that aimed to filter internet sites, threatening online communities, including the Anonymous community on 4chan. What ensued was “Operation Titstorm” (or “Op” for short). Members of the collective coordinated distributed denial of service, or DDoS, attacks on government websites and flooded them with pornographic images. While this method of protest involving pornography may invoke staunch criticism from some and giggles from others, nevertheless, the political message from Anonymous was loud and clear: threaten the right to freedom of speech, and there will be consequences.
4chan’s creator, going by the pseudonym “moot”, who tends to distance himself from Anonymous activism, or “hacktivism”, nevertheless criticised the Australian government for introducing the bill, dubbed ‘The Internet Censorship Bill’: “The idea that the government can decide what websites you can and cannot view is terrifying and wrong.” Since, Anonymous actors have taken it upon themselves to act as the guardians of internet freedom.
While Anonymous targets are vast, they are hardly indiscriminate. Anonymous affiliates operating in every corner of the world have assisted popular movements in various parts of Africa and the revolutions in the Middle East, even in Pakistan as the public battles with the load shedding crisis. Additionally, weeks before the Occupy movement kicked off in the United States, Anonymous joined in promoting the takeover of Wall Street so much so that DHS actively monitored their role in the days leading up to 17 September 2011.
Factions of Anonymous entangled heavily with the Occupy movement fought back against police brutality during “Op PigRoast”, when members of Anonymous traced badge numbers of abusive police officers and squared them with a “d0x”, also known as an information dump containing names, phone numbers, and home addresses of offending officers and their family members encouraging members of the public to flood their homes with pizza deliveries. Such was the fate of now infamous cops Anthony Bologna, responsible for kettling and pepper-spraying four women in New York City, and Lt John Pike, the UC Davis police officer who pepper-sprayed a group of students peacefully demonstrating on their university campus at pointblank range.
Nevertheless, internet freedom has been a mainstay of Anonymous politics. It is what saw the collective turn to support WikiLeaks when it came under attack and financial corporations, such as Visa, MaterCard, and PayPal, suspended payment transactions to WikiLeaks. Anonymous subsequently used a pre-existing operation, “Op Payback”, to launch DDoS attacks on organisations opposing WikiLeaks and the websites of Visa, MasterCard, and PayPal. Thus, the stage had long been set for one of Anonymous’ largest attacks: “Op Megaupload”.
In January of this year, the US Department of Justice (DoJ) shut down the file sharing website Megaupload, slapping it with a piracy indictment, and the FBI ordered the arrest of Megaupload’s executives in New Zealand. The arrests and seizure of one of the internet’s largest file sharing sites provoked a fury of immense proportions from Anonymous who, within minutes, took immediate action and attacked US government websites, such as the DoJ, the FBI, and the White House and various entertainment industry websites, such as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Disney, and Warner Brothers. A member of “CabinCr3w” told me during an interview that it was estimated that approximately 10,000 – 15,000 people participated in the online attacks during “Op Megaupload”. This member of “CabinCr3w” went on to tell me,
“It was shocking because I have not seen that many anons (short for Anonymous) from around the world working together the way I did that day and it touched me.”
“Op Megaupload”, which lasted approximately one week, saw the immense growth of Anonymous as a protest movement for internet freedom. Various Anonymous Twitter accounts saw their follows lists grow tenfold. Before “Op Megaupload”, the “YourAnonNews” Twitter account had approximately 80,000 followers. Within 48 hours, the follower number swelled to a mammoth half million.
“Jackal” and “Emmi”, 2 associates of “YourAnonNews”, both told me unequivocally in the same words in each of their interviews: “I hate censorship.” “Jackal” continues,
“I believe that all forms of media should be free and open. As Cory Doctorow put it, we didn't find our favourite artist by blindly picking up a book or a CD. It was shared.”
“The internet is a huge source of knowledge and information. The fact that there are people out there working to deny the common person's right to learn everything they can about anything they want is what I'd say is the fight for the freedom of information. People need to know what is really going on in the rest of the world, not just what their governments want them to know. It's like the governments of the world are nanny states and they're all conspiring to keep their charges under rocks, and thereby keep people placid.”
In regards to Anonymous’ fight to keep the channels of the internet free and open, “Jackal” tells me:
“The internet is a crazy thing. Content can be made by anyone and ideas can be spread with the click of anyone’s keyboard. Anyone can speak out about anything. The powers that be, from governments to corporations and trade groups want to change this. Our voice has become too powerful. With the power of the internet we can do anything from topple governments to get a free education. Governments are beginning to see what will happen if the people can speak out so freely in an open forum.”
Joseph Menn, who’s Financial Times article otherwise maligns Anonymous as a mere bunch of unruly criminals, may, nevertheless, bear a hint of truth when he states, “Supporters worry that if the group continues on its current path, it could trigger a legislative backlash that would bring heightened monitoring at the expense of the privacy that Anonymous prizes.” Certainly the attitudes of those affiliated with Anonymous, like “Emmi”, do not help ease such concerns. “Emmi” states,
“My favourite part of technology is that it is flawed, and it will always be flawed. Just because the government says you are not allowed to view something doesn't mean that there aren’t backdoors and holes to get around those rules. It's like the Matrix. The internet is the Matrix. There are rules and "laws", sure, but rules and laws are made to be bent and broken. It is Anonymous that keeps the holes open, the information free.”
Gabriella Coleman, anthropologist and Anonymous expert, consistently maintains throughout her work that those examining Anonymous should resist the reflexive desire to simply label Anonymous as unruly criminals as Menn does. Nevertheless, Anonymous actors do operate in shady area when it comes to the law. Some Anonymous actors, like “Jackal”, participate in “d0x” operations, which involve compiling information that is already within the public domain and dumping it all into one document in the public for all to see, and, thus, he is technically within the law. Others, such as those who operate in “CabinCr3w” and “TeamPoison” participate in DDoS, website defacements, or what Coleman calls “hacking-for-leaking” – which involves hackers breaking into servers and email accounts and leaking private, and often classified, details and documents. In a co-authored piece, Coleman and Michael Ralph deduce, “Anon hackers are ‘criminals’ in so far as any hacker has inevitably broken a host of laws.”
In some instances, the hack jobs are done to prove “Emmi’s” point:
“The fact that [governments] are saying Anonymous is a threat to national security; secretly they must love us for gauging holes in their systems and finding vulnerabilities so that they don't have to.”
Operation “AntiSec”, a joint venture between members of LulzSec and Anonymous, aimed to show governments precisely how insecure their secure systems were and saw the leak of two classified NATO documents.
In other instances, Anonymous actors choose their operations based on causes close to their hearts. Here a member of“CabinCr3w” discloses to me how “OpFreePalestine” was conceived in an Internet Relay Chat, or IRC, conference with other “CabinCr3w” members on Internet within “#TheCabin”:
“I brought the op to the table and spoke to the cr3w about it. I explained to them how [Palestinians] are voiceless. That the Israeli occupation on Palestinian land has been going on since 1948 and no one has done much to stop it. Noone has talked about it much in fear of being called a terrorist. Noone has lifted a finger to march in the US except those few who know what goes down. Noone has questioned the US government as to why they continue to fund and supply Israel with money to be used against Palestinians. Israel uses white phosphorus which has been banned and seen as a war crime if used. Yet Israel still attacks daily the people of Palestine. Children still get murdered by bombs falling feet from their cribs. This is all funded by foreign powers, foreign money and hatred towards a group of people who when deciding to fight back are called a danger to all of the other foreign countries and are painted as terrorists. So the cr3w had agreed on it, and decided to join an op that was already in place. OpFreePalestine was already there. But it wasn’t [doing] much. So we joined in. And now with CabinCr3w, and TeamPoison we have pushed this more then we thought it would go.”
“OpFreePalestine” has seen DDoS attacks and defacements on Israeli websites, including the website of the Israeli Knesset. Additionally, the Twitter accounts of members of the “CabinCr3w” and “TeamPoison” are now decorated with Palestinian flags, undoubtedly in support of the wider Free Palestine movement.
A similar choice for former LulzSec member “Sabu”, arrested in June 2011 for hacking activities then turned informant, who donned his Twitter account with a Hamas flag, left some, namely the notorious “Jester”, or “th3j35t3r”, who has made a career out of combating “online jihadists”, questioning the links between Anonymous and Islamic extremism. Some have even gone so far as to say that Anonymous are the new “Internet Taliban”.
While we know now that “Sabu” was not a Hamas operative and instead is a young unemployed Puerto Rican man living in New York City named Hector Xavier Monsegur, the fact remains that when it comes to the rest of the Anonymous collective, the public knows nothing about who they are, whether some may be tied to Islamic extremism, or are simply motivated by anarchy. And that’s the whole point. In a real sense, Anonymous represents ‘the people’ – or at least the segment of ‘the people’ who are able to access the internet.
The internet has always been used to publish and promote all types of ideas and ideologies ranging from mainstream to fringe extremism. To all those who have access, the internet is like an ultimate equaliser. It is human interaction in a rather raw form representing the best and worst of humanity – from our higher selves found in online academic journals, to our basest selves found in the pits of hell on /b/. We can be ageless, sexless, raceless, stateless, without ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation – or we can be all of those things or we can be something entirely different. Much like Anonymous. This is what makes it so powerful: for in our age of hyper classification, it took humankind to reduce ourselves of our identities to galvanise us.
It is that very anonymity that simultaneously generates the feeling of invincibility among Anonymous actors and panic within governments. DHS’s 2003 document ‘The National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace’ concedes that “The speed and anonymity of cyber-attacks makes distinguishing among the actions of terrorists, criminals, and nation states difficult, a task which often occurs only after the fact, if at all.” This is precisely how Anonymous functions the way that they do.
For now, while the internet remains relatively free, in the face of governments around the world threatening the hacker-geek consortium with punitive action, Anonymous continue to do what they do best: troll defiantly. “We do what we like and we like what we do” tweeted “YourAnonNews” in their characteristic “lulzy” rebelliousness. Yes, that tweet just about sums them up.
Cyberwarfare: The Internet as a Militarised Domain
“If I'm a terrorist, I'm proud to be a terrorist. Because the only people who are scared of Anonymous are the governments. If I am a terrorist, I wear the badge proudly. Anarchists who aren't labelled terrorists are doing it wrong… the people should not be afraid of their government. The government should be afraid of their people.”
Nonetheless, labelling Anonymous “terrorists” is mere expediency to carry out restrictive internet policies governments have been seeking to do for years prior to Anonymous’ popularity. Today, the rapid rate at which governments are creating legislation to crack down on the internet is enough to make one dizzy. In the UK, the government is currently drafting legislation to make it easier to access people’s email accounts, telephones, and monitor internet use. In the US various proposed anti-piracy legislations have come and gone, often with garnered support from those in entertainment industry, and heavy censure from civil rights advocates claiming that the guise of protecting copyrighted property would create a slippery slope onfreedoms of speech and expression on the internet – rights that now in Western democracies are rapidly eroding in our non-cyber lives. Cyber space, for better or for worse, may now be one of a limited number of domains where remnants of these freedoms remain, yet is fast slipping away. Moreover, the United States already has laws governing piracy that protect both intellectual property rights and individual citizen’s constitutional rights while targeting piracy criminals.
After the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) were abandoned by the US Senate in January, similar legislations have swiftly crept up. Legislations currently up for debate in the United States are H.R. 3523: Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act of 2011, or CISPA, and in the Arizona House of Representatives is House Bill 2549 – both have a chilling effect on internet freedoms.
“The Internet is not a free zone where anybody can do anything they want to do and trample the rights of other people, and particularly when we’re talking about — in this case, we’re talking about entities offshore that are doing so, that are pirating things. But the idea that, you know, anything goes on the Internet, where did that come from? Where in America does it say that anything goes?”
In short, expect to see the battle over the internet continue. In the meantime, corporations in the defence industry, such as Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems, are taking their positions as the avant-garde in cyber-security. However, American politicians’ commiseration with Hollywood’s hot shots should hardly be conflated as Washington’s fancy for the film and record industries.While some experts may have argued that SOPA and PIPA had its merits and drawbacks, the legislation was written speedily behind closed doors and was endeavoured to pass through the house and senate as rapidly – raising eyebrows among civil rights groups. Simultaneously, recurrent messages about cyber criminals threatening national security seem to justify evasive backdoor politics. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller warned:
“Today’s cyber criminals have the ability to interrupt life-sustaining services, cause catastrophic economic damage, or severely degrade the networks our defence and intelligence agencies rely on… Congress needs to act on comprehensive cyber security legislation immediately.”
Nevertheless, experts, such as Jerry Brito and Tate Watkins, write that the alarmist warnings do not hold up to scrutiny. “Rhetoric about cyber catastrophe resembles threat inflation we saw in the run-up to the Iraq War” and caution that severe cyber security legislation could have the effect of creating a “cyber industrial complex”.
A 2011 NATO documenttitled ‘Information and National Security’ notes the evolving sophistication of Anonymous operations. However, what NATO may describe as “sophisticated” tactics are merely skills that anyone with the technical knowhow, AKA our beloved techie, is capable of carrying out. In other words, these sophisticated tactics may be more commonplace than the NATO document suggests. The Catch-22 is that hacker tactics are also deployed in “cyberwarfare” as a military tactic to carry out cyber-attacks on network infrastructures of adversarial states. Such was the case when Iranian nuclear facilities were struck with the Stuxnet worm; an attack that The Economist labelled “a cyber-missile”.
Cyberwarfare is now part of the evolving methods of non-traditional warfare and have been evolving as such for more than a decade. Washington DC is now taking steps to classify cyber-attacks as an act of armed conflict where hacker activity would be deemed hostile reconnaissance – whether from state or non-state actors. As such the United States Cyber Command, or USCYBERCOM, was created in 2009 and tasked to plan, coordinate, integrate, synchronise and conduct activities to:
“[D]irect the operations and defense of specified Department of Defense information networks and; prepare to, and when directed, conduct full spectrum military cyberspace operations in order to enable actions in all domains, ensure US/Allied freedom of action in cyberspace and deny the same to our adversaries.” (Emphasis mine)
According to Stephen Graham, author of Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism, the inclusion of USCYBERCOM operating under the US Department of Defense has “sought to militarize the world’s electronic infrastructures”. Under the directives of DHS and the surveillance programme delineated by the Aspen Institute, USCYBERCOM has its work cut out over the coming years in the expanding War on Terror.
Nevertheless, the inclusion of cyberspace with other public infrastructures, roads, railways, airspace, waters, energy, television and radio airwaves, as a controlled secure zone means that the internet – which has so far managed to remain relatively autonomous – is currently in the process of being encompassed as part of the Statist objective. Once states manage to secure the internet, it can enforce political powerswithin cyberspace to maintain “law and order”as particular states see fit – in other words, imposing “full spectrum dominance”. Lani Kass writes, “Cyber delivers on the original promise of air power. If you don’t dominate in cyberspace, you don’t dominate in other domains”. NATO observes:
“Today, the ad hoc international group of hackers and activists is said to have thousands of operatives and has no set rules or membership. It remains to be seen how much time Anonymous has for pursuing such paths. The longer these attacks persist the more likely countermeasures will be developed, implemented, the groups will be infiltrated and perpetrators prosecuted.”
Whether one sees Anonymous as an unruly group of cyber criminals, or as heroes protecting people’s rights to free speech and expression, few would debate the veracity of NATO’s conclusions. Lest we not forget the very origins of the internet itself: as a defence project initiated by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, in the 1970s to enhance wartime communications for the US DoDby introducing a digitised network of computers capable of communicating with one another.
From this viewpoint, one sees Anonymous as a collective of non-state actors operating raucously within a militarised zone, employing basic military tactics available toany common man or woman, to carry out acts of “war” on nation states. It goes without saying that Anonymous actors appear to have intuitively known precisely what they were getting into by terming their actions as “operations” or “ops”. As such, Anonymous is encroaching on territory makingheads of states incredibly uneasy, thereby inevitably placing Anonymous within the “adversaries” category as delineated by USCYBERCOM.It will be interesting to observe in the coming weeks how the UK government plans a response to the latest attacks on the Home Office and 10 Downing Street websites by Anonymous actors, some of who claim that the attacks came in light of theproposed laws to monitor email inboxes of ordinary UK citizens, and others to protest existing extradition laws with the US.
Conclusion: Internet Vigilantes
As the War on Terror evolves its mission to target terror threats originating in the United States, already broad and problematic terms such as “terrorist”, as Glenn Greenwald explored, or “adversary” as USCYBERCOM leaves ominously vague, are expanding across a worrying width to encompass people along a broader spectrum. The threat is no longer just the dissenting Muslim who takes issue with unilateral wars being waged throughout the Muslim world who expresses their fury in religious terminology, but the Muslim’s fellow citizens who feel fleeced by corrupt bankers and the cosy relationship their elected leaders have with them.
Americans recently taking to the streets to protest against their government have become well aware of how their activism has turned the machinery of counter terrorism onto them. These latest “terrorists” and “adversaries” have also widely taken to on-line social networking to air their causes and to communicate with others around the world involved in similar actions for support and inspiration – as did their protester predecessors in the Middle East and Europe with Anonymous playing a vital role in sustaining protests. The internet has served as a critical mainstay in contemporary activism, from mobilising actions, to spreading information in the form of photographs and videos, to garnering support from around the world – or as Anonymous does, sending your local riot cop one hundred pizzas.
It has become next to impossible to imagine our world with an internet that has been fragmented and censored – where users have to think twice about what we tweet or what we post on our facebook pages, even how journalists and bloggers write. But as governments around the world assemble their matches against the internet, it is almost certain that adisjointed internet, regulated, monitored,and withmassive firewalls, is imminent. For now, we look to our tech-geek vigilantes in Anonymous, who take it upon themselves to defend the remnants of our rapidly eroding civil rights and, in the meantime, we should fully enjoy our freedoms of speech and expression on the internet while we still have them.
Ayesha Kazmi is a researcher at Cageprisoners. Follow her on twitter @AyeshaKazmi or on her blog http://americanpaki.wordpress.com/