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A For Anonymous

by Paul Rapp on August 10, 2011 · 2 comments

There have been lots of headlines lately about Anonymous, a mysterious “hacker collective” that’s pulled off a string of “attacks” on various websites. The mainstream media reports on Anonym

ous typically focus on the criminal aspects of the hacks, the impacts on the various victims, and the efforts of the international law enforcement to get the “bad guys.” It’s not unusual for Anonymous to be described as some kind of terrorist organization. Which is totally ridiculous. Anonymous and its various strains are a loose and leaderless international collection of activists, apparently mostly teenage boys, who hack their way into the Internet environments of their carefully chosen targets in order to embarrass and to bring about social change, and for bragging rights. The “members” communicate via chat rooms, develop and exchange hacking software, and execute.

While what they do certainly involves breaking some laws, if you ignore the media hysteria and look at what Anonymous really does, it’s obvious that it is overwhelmingly a force for good.

Take, for example, last weekend’s hack of police agencies. The agencies’ websites were defaced and a bunch of police information and some credit-card numbers were posted online. It turns out that all of the affected agencies maintained their websites through the same Internet company, and the hack that got Anonymous in through the back door remained open and undetected for as long as a week. A spokesman for one of the police agencies stated that the hack had compromised some ongoing police investigations; this was an isolated quote that was featured in every mainstream media report I’ve seen. But the bigger story, and one not mentioned by the media, was that a whole bunch of law-enforcement agencies had entrusted their confidential files to a third party vendor that left the files vulnerable.

If the motley and overcaffeinated members of Anonymous were the thieves or terrorists that the media portray them to be, we’d probably never hear of the hacks until real damage was done. The information gathered from the hacks would be used for further nefarious activities, really criminal stuff, and not simply posted online like a geek trophy. The stolen credit-card numbers would be used, not posted (although last weekend’s police hack had a funny exception to this: Anonymous announced that a few of the hacked credit-card numbers were employed to make modest “involuntary contributions” to the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Bradley Manning Defense Fund).

In other words, if Anonymous finds your vulnerability, you just get humiliated. And you spend some money making your system more secure. If a truly criminal enterprise gets there first, you and everyone you’ve got information on could get wiped out.

Also unexplored and unreported by the mainstream media are the activities of Anonymous in the geopolitical arena. Anonymous played a critical role last year in the Arab Spring uprisings throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, attacking and disabling government websites and digital communications while simultaneously enabling the Internet capacities of the protesters on the streets. Right now, Anonymous is in a pitched battled with the murderous and corrupt Syrian regime.

Governments that enact Internet censorship laws are attacked, as Australia was in 2008’s appropriately named Operation Titstorm.

The Church of Scientology is a frequent target, and it appears the evil Westboro Baptist Church is getting teed up for a takedown. This morning, I read that Anonymous claims that it will take down Facebook in a few months for its shoddy privacy policies. The ultra-right-wing Koch brothers, who have shoveled millions upon millions of dollars into the Tea Party and other fascist causes, are constant targets. And of course Anonymous has been unwavering in its support for Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, and WikiLeaks.

Do I agree with everything done in the name of Anonymous? Of course not, and neither do the members of Anonymous. There are constant disputes among the members about what’s OK and what’s not, and these fascinating disputes are utterly transparent in public online arguments. And as this is a decentralized, leaderless group, reported Anonymous hacks are quickly disavowed by others claiming to be members of Anonymous. In fact, a recent thread in Anonymous blogs involves claims that governments are staging phony Anonymous attacks on themselves in order to justify more Internet censorship and stiffer anti-hacking laws.

Go Anonymous.