They have already torn the scalp of many famous victims. Last month they made fun of international organizations like Interpol, USA agencies like CIA or worldwide companies like Bayer and Sony. Only in Italy, in the past months, they took off line Equitalia, Il Vaticano and Beppe Grillo’s blog. We are talking about Anonymous, probably the most popular worldwide clandestine group of hacktivists.
We Are Anonymous
It’s very difficult to explain the real nature of Anomymous; almost impossible is also to identify its members or to specify where they are from. In their blogs Anomymous define themselves simply as an internet meme, something between an idea and a trend propagating through the network. Quinn Norton, on Wired, called them a culture, a new way of thinking themselves and society, absolutely out of the actual common sense of ethics and legality but, at the same time, full of very interesting ideas.
According to some sources Anonymous was born in 2003 even if its most important operations occurred after 2006. Much of Anonymous iconography and symbologyis taken straight taken from the V for Vendetta movie, released on the same year. Ideally, Anonymous members are followers of the V for Vendetta main character, Guy Fawkes, seen as the heroic opponent of the unfair powers, ready to sacrifice himself to defend the values and aspirations of the common people. Hacktivists often use the English conspirator’s mask to hide faces both during virtual and real world actions. The group’s name is bond, instead, to the anonymous nickname normally used in imageboards like 4chan.org, one of first and most important community catalysts.
The clandestine nature of this group, along with its substantially anarchic background, its particular notion of collectivity in which the individual acts on his/her own risk recalls the scenarios encountered in George Orwell’s 1984, and the rebel organization, the “The Brotherhood” in which the main character will take part. Anonymous share many contradictory aspects with these scenarios. Like The Brotherhood Anonymous doesn’t have a single head but probably many brains, each of them with their own aims and ideals, icons and idioms, converging at a superficial level only. The Italian news analyst Raffaele Ventura called Anonymous a liquid party: this in part explains the interesting paradoxes that characterize this group.
The first paradox is that Anonymous simultaneously exists and does not exist. In fact, if anyone can use the group signature–by simply using the anonymous nickname– nobody can consider herself more anonymous than other, to put it in Orwell’s words.
The second paradox deals with the inconsistencies between ideal premises and operative practice. In fact, the explicit anti mainstream and anti religious ideology contradicts the group’s adoption as its main icon of the mask of a catholic revolutionary regularly sold by any American major outlet. Some sources (among them Ventura, who has been the target of a deface attack) think that because of these paradoxes the movement will lose steam in few years, like a mass blunder artfully made up by the same multinational stated as the main enemy.
How do Anonymous operate? Their operations are normally internet and social media based, they appear on blogs and forums mixing skillfully mix virtual tools and real actions like flash mobs and public events. Anonymous attacks are carried out both on the internet and by means of traditional media.
Many Anonymous tools and tactics are popular in the hacker community. Defaces (home page replacements with different kinds of messages), Distributed Denial of Service – DDOS – attacks (to overload victim servers to prevent them to deliver their services) and on line publication of secret names and credit card numbers are some of their favorite instruments.
Thus, in order to understand a bit more about their cultural background, it is helpful to go back to the Nineties. This was the age of the first wave of hackers, well depicted by Bruce Sterling in the Hacker Crackdown and in the Hacker Manifesto , written in 1986 where the author declared:
Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like. My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for. I am a hacker, and this is my manifesto. You may stop this individual, but you can’t stop us all… after all, we’re all alike.
Friends, enemies, values
With respect to Italy, from the AnonNews blog latest posts we can infer that Anonymous supports the Anti Vivisection and No TAV movements; we understand that they harshly criticize the Federation of the Italian Music Industry (FIMI), the Carabinieri Army, the Italian Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Catholic Church establishment, the Vaticano and many others. They even started a variety of operations against these institutions, whose news can be found on their international AnonNews website.
Whether you talk about Italy, USA, Russia or other countries, however, their stories share a number of elements. Anonymous activists are often jailed due to crimes about national security, copyright or their nature as internet avengers operating outside of the national states laws. They have violence during their operations, but only against immaterial objects (data, software products, corporate images) and never to persons, as opposed to what their enemies did.
It’s worth to notice that some Anonymous arguments have found followers outside of the sphere of the hacker community: this is an unprecedented fact compared to the Hacker Crackdown years. This is the case of, for instance, copyleft debates and studies on this subject, or the discussion on peer to peer practices (see Michel Bauwens interview). Even some of the strongest instances of participatory democracy have been sympathetic to Anonymous.
A further aspect to consider regarding Anonymous actions is that although lawless, they managed to take care of knotty situations that police force or public authorities had neglected or weren’t able to resolve. The Operation Darknet against a pedophile websites network or the backlash against the Kony2012 reportage (a reportage produced to show the world the Ugandan lord of war Joseph Kony and his revolution built up exploiting children commandos) are cases in point.
All things considered, are Anonymous angels or demons? Probably they are both, as it was pointed out by Al Jazeera on Anonymous and the global correction. Probably it’s always better to consider that behind a collective noun like Anonymous there can be noble fighters and modern Robin Hoods, as well as thieves and terrorists whose only goal is to steal credit card numbers or spread computer virus for various reasons.
Chaos Theory taught us that complex systems – to which global society can probably be liken– strive to find their own balances autonomously, beyond any effort to constrain or direct their effects. We can expect, then, that Anonymous will have many other problems with laws and authorities and might produce some unfortunate digital operations. However, It could also happen that some of their actions will express some profound ethic sense, a sense that law is too often unable to pursue. Social problems and changes in paradigms, in other words, are now too fast to be implemented through official politics. A bottom up approach can sometimes be the only efficient way to proceed.
In conclusion, we think that, be they good or evil, Anonymous activists are helping us rethink our society. We believe, like Al Jazeera, that given some time, and partially unconsciously, they even can push us to build up a better society.
Unless they are only a hoax, of course.