- Update 2: Prepare for attacks on Twitter and Facebook, as these sites are increasingly taking action against Anonymous hackers.
Y’all have heard about Anonymous probably by now. If you haven’t: it’s the group of anonymous hackers that is responsible for taking down for a couple of hours the websites of Visa, Mastercard, PayPal and Amazon, as well as the Swedish prosecutor’s office and Senator Joe Lieberman. These are all entities that in the past week have tried, one way or the other, to take WikiLeaks offline, or cut it short in its operations and resources.
The NYT (in an otherwise rather biased, pro-powers that be article, I must say) provides an overview:
In a campaign that had some declaring the start of a “cyberwar,” hundreds of Internet activists mounted retaliatory attacks on Wednesday on the Web sites of multinational companies and other organizations they deemed hostile to the WikiLeaks antisecrecy organization and its jailed founder, Julian Assange.
On Thursday, a man identifying himself as one of the activists from a group called Anonymous, who used the pseudonym Coldblood in an interview with BBC radio, said: “This campaign is not over from what I’ve seen. It’s still going strong.” The speaker had an English accent and said he was a 22-year-old software engineer with no specific political loyalty.
Within 12 hours of a British judge’s decision on Tuesday to deny Mr. Assange bail in a Swedish extradition case, attacks on the Web sites of WikiLeaks’s “enemies,” as defined by the organization’s impassioned supporters around the world, caused several corporate Web sites to become inaccessible or slow down markedly.
Targets of the attacks, in which activists overwhelmed the sites with traffic, included the Web site of MasterCard, which had stopped processing donations for WikiLeaks; Amazon.com, which revoked the use of its computer servers; and PayPal, which stopped accepting donations for Mr. Assange’s group. Visa.com was also affected by the attacks, as were the Web sites of the Swedish prosecutor’s office and the lawyer representing the two women whose allegations of sexual misconduct are the basis of Sweden’s extradition bid.
The Internet assaults underlined the growing reach of self-described “cyberanarchists,” antigovernment and anticorporate activists who have made an icon of Mr. Assange, a 39-year-old Australian.
Now these Anonymous guys are a pretty theatrical bunch (if you can call them a bunch; rather, they self-identify as a collective of anonymous individuals). Check out the website they use to advertise their goals, Why We Protest:
Anonymous is a cultural phenomenon which began on internet image boards. Many such boards require no registration for posting, and every poster remains anonymous. This format of communication is inherently noisy and chaotic. However, the unprecedented openness made possible by such boards has nurtured the appearance of a unique and persistent culture.
We are a collection of individuals united by ideas. You likely know Anonymous, although you don’t know exactly who we are. We are your brothers and sisters, your parents and children, your superiors and your underlings. We are the concerned citizens standing next to you. Anonymous is everywhere, yet nowhere. Our strength lies in our numbers. Our will as a whole is the combined will of individuals. Our greatest advantage is a knowledge of the fundamentals we share as human beings. This knowledge is a fruit of our anonymity.
Anonymous has left its mark on society more than once. Previous Anonymous projects have resulted in the closing of the white-supremacist radio show produced by Hal Turner, and the criminal prosecution of Canadian pedophile Chris Forcand. Anonymous has been called a “Cyber Vigilante Group” by The Toronto Sun and Global News, though in reality we are much more than that.
We are Anonymous. You can be Anonymous, too. Together, we can shape society.
They have gained some notoriety by appearing in public protesting the Church of Scientology, wearing Guy Fawkes from V for Vendetta masks (see above).
So what they’re doing now is making DDoS attacks on websites, employing what they call a “low orbit ion cannon”: a piece of software allowing your computer to become part of a network that engages in these attacks. The way they’re “organized” is that they communicatie via irc chatrooms and imageboards, and then pretty much at random decide which website to attack. Sometimes they vote, but there’s no leader or organizing body or anything.
The Economist has more information, and a chat interview with an Anonymous hacker. They call Anonymou a ”24-hour Athenian democracy”:
Anonymous is not WikiLeaks, and the more famous whistle-blower does not seem to be pulling the strings. Nor, in fact, does anyone. At any point, anybody can show up in one of several IRC conversations and make a case for a target. Whoever else is there registers a vote, or an argument. During the attack on Mr Lieberman’s site, anons argued that America’s .gov domains would be difficult to take offline, and therefore were not a worthwhile target. One anon pointed out that the Senator does not do business through his website. One wrote, simply, that the site was down in Germany, and that they were all going to jail.
But there is order, of a sort, within Anonymous. Anons, though they know each other only by their pseudonyms, develop trust over time through constant participation in the organising chats. The power of the group lies in a piece of software called a “low-orbit ion cannon”. Do not be put off by this scrap of jargon; an ion cannon is a fictional weapon used in fictional space epics. But the very real software allows someone to volunteer his own computer and network connection as part of a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, a coordinated mass of requests that can crash a web server. Traditionally, a DDoS comes from personal computers that have been illegally loaded with software and tethered to a single command server as part of a “botnet”. The low-orbit ion cannon is, essentially, a volunteer botnet that Anonymous uses to take down websites.
About ten people, called “OPs”, are able to launch an attack. If any OP abuses his power—if he fails to heed what anons call “the hive mind” in IRC conversations— the other OPs can lock him out of the chat. If any anon fails to be inspired by the target, she can remove her own computer from the volunteer botnet, reducing its effect. Anonymous is a 24-hour Athenian democracy, run by a quorum of whoever happens to be awake. It’s hard even to define Anonymous as a “group”, since not all members participate in all projects.
So yeah. Taking down a corporate website of course harms a private actor, as it blocks payment traffic. So hacking is, and should be, illegal.
But I can’t deny having some sympathy for this. What I regret is that all the attention now goes to the payback actions of Anonymous, rather than the actual content of the WikiLeaks cables. The latter is what the debate should be about. But in the long haul, this idea of a global, loosely connected network of hackers that now acts as a counterweight to the centralizing tendencies of the surveillance state, is appealing to me. Now, for once, the state and the corporations are the victim of angry citizens, rather than the other way around. And let’s face it: the pressure by the U.S. government on Amazon, Visa, PayPal and MasterCard, and these corporations complying, to hurt and harm WikiLeaks is nothing but thuggish. They would never do that a newspaper. So they’re basically getting what they came for.
- Edit: Glenn Greenwald puts it this way, and I agree:
Whatever you think of WikiLeaks, they have not been charged with a crime, let alone indicted or convicted. Yet look what has happened to them. They have been removed from Internet … their funds have been frozen … media figures and politicians have called for their assassination and to be labeled a terrorist organization. What is really going on here is a war over control of the Internet, and whether or not the Internet can actually serve its ultimate purpose—which is to allow citizens to band together and democratize the checks on the world’s most powerful factions.