Anonymous (used as a mass noun) is a loosely associated hacktivist group. It originated in 2003 on the imageboard 4chan, representing the concept of many online and offline community users simultaneously existing as an anarchic, digitized global brain. It is also generally considered to be a blanket term for members of certain Internet subcultures, a way to refer to the actions of people in an environment where their actual identities are not known. It strongly opposes Internet censorship and surveillance, and has hacked various government websites. It has also targeted major security corporations. It also opposes Scientology, government corruption and homophobia. Its members can be distinguished in public by the wearing of stylised Guy Fawkes masks.
In its early form, the concept was adopted by a decentralized online community acting anonymously in a coordinated manner, usually toward a loosely self-agreed goal, and primarily focused on entertainment. Beginning with 2008, the Anonymous collective became increasingly associated with collaborative, international hacktivism. They undertook protests and other actions in retaliation against anti-digital piracy campaigns by motion picture and recording industry trade associations. Actions credited to ”Anonymous” were undertaken by unidentified individuals who applied the Anonymous label to themselves as attribution. They have been called the freedom fighters of the Internet, a digital Robin Hood, and ”anarchic cyber-guerrillas.”
Although not necessarily tied to a single online entity, many websites are strongly associated with Anonymous. This includes notable imageboards such as 4chan, their associated wikis, Encyclopædia Dramatica, and a number of forums. After a series of controversial, widely publicized protests, distributed denial of service(DDoS) and website defacement attacks by Anonymous in 2008, incidents linked to its members increased. In consideration of its capabilities, Anonymous was posited by CNN in 2011 to be one of the three major successors to WikiLeaks. In 2012, Time named Anonymous as one of the most influential groups in the world.
The name Anonymous itself is inspired by the perceived anonymity under which users post images and comments on the Internet. Usage of the term Anonymous in the sense of a shared identity began on imageboards. A tag of Anonymous is assigned to visitors who leave comments without identifying the originator of the posted content. Users of imageboards sometimes jokingly acted as if Anonymous were a real person. The concept of the Anonymous entity advanced in 2004 when an administrator on the 4chan image board activated a ”Forced_Anon” protocol that signed all posts as Anonymous. As the popularity of imageboards increased, the idea of Anonymous as a collective of unnamed individuals became an Internet meme.
Anonymous broadly represents the concept of any and all people as an unnamed collective. As a multiple-use name, individuals who share in the ”Anonymous” moniker also adopt a shared online identity, characterized as hedonistic and uninhibited. This is intended as a satirical, conscious adoption of the online disinhibition effect.
|“||We [Anonymous] just happen to be a group of people on the internet who need—just kind of an outlet to do as we wish, that we wouldn’t be able to do in regular society. …That’s more or less the point of it. Do as you wish. … There’s a common phrase: ‘we are doing it for the lulz.’||”|
|—Trent Peacock. Search Engine: The face of Anonymous, February 7, 2008.
Definitions tend to emphasize that the concept, and by extension the collective of users, cannot be readily encompassed by a simple definition. Instead Anonymous is often defined by aphorisms describing perceived qualities. One self-description, originating from a protest video targeted at the Church of Scientology, is:
|“||[Anonymous is] the first Internet-basedsuperconsciousness. Anonymous is a group, in the sense that a flock of birds is a group. How do you know they’re a group? Because they’re traveling in the same direction. At any given moment, more birds could join, leave, peel off in another direction entirely.||”|
|—Chris Landers. Baltimore City Paper, April 2, 2008.
Anonymous consists largely of users from multiple imageboards and Internet forums. In addition, several wikis and Internet Relay Chatnetworks are maintained to overcome the limitations of traditional imageboards. These modes of communication are the means by which Anonymous protesters participating in Project Chanology communicate and organize upcoming protests.
A ”loose coalition of Internet denizens,” the group bands together through the Internet, using IRC channels and sites such as 4chan, 711chan, Encyclopædia Dramatica, and YouTube. Social networking services, such as Facebook, are used for to mobilize groups for real-world protests.
Anonymous has no leader or controlling party and relies on the collective power of its individual participants acting in such a way that the net effect benefits the group. ”Anyone who wants to can be Anonymous and work toward a set of goals…” a member of Anonymous explained to the Baltimore City Paper. ”We have this agenda that we all agree on and we all coordinate and act, but all act independently toward it, without any want for recognition. We just want to get something that we feel is important done…”. Anonymous members have previously collaborated with hacker group LulzSec.
It is impossible to ‘join’ Anonymous, as there is no leadership, no ranking, and no single means of communication. Anonymous is spread over many mediums and languages, with membership being achieved simply by wishing to join.
Commander X and the People’s Liberation Front
A person known as Commander X provided interviews and videos about Anonymous. In 2011, he was at the center of an investigation into Anonymous by HBGary CEO Aaron Barr, who claimed to have identified him as a San Francisco gardener. Interviewed following the attack on HBGary Federal, Commander X revealed that while Barr suspected that he was a leader of the group, he was in his own words a ”peon.” However, Commander X did claim to be a skilled hacker and founding member of an allied organization, the Peoples Liberation Front (PLF). According to Commander X, Peoples Liberation Front, a collective of hactivists founded in 1985, acted with AnonOps, another sub-group of Anonymous, to carry out denial-of-service (DDOS) attacks against government websites in Tunisia, Iran, Egypt, and Bahrain. Explaining the relationship between Anonymous and the PLF, he suggested an analogy to NATO, with the PLF being a smaller sub-group that could choose to opt in or out of a specific project. ”AnonOps and the PLF are both capable of creating huge ”Internet armies.” The main difference is AnonOps moves with huge force, but very slowly because of their decision making process. The PLF moves with great speed, like a scalpel.” On September 23, 2011, a homeless man in California named Christopher Doyon was arrested and stated by officials to have used the Commander X screen name. He pleaded not guilty.
Low Orbit Ion Cannon
The Low Orbit Ion Cannon is a network stress testing application that has been used by Anonymous to accomplish its DDOS attacks. Individual users download the LOIC and voluntarily contribute their computer to a bot net. This bot net is then directed against the target by AnonOps. Joining the bot net and volunteering one’s resources for the use of the group is thus one way of being a ”member,” a concept that is otherwise hard to define.
The Pirate Bay
In April 2009, after The Pirate Bay co-defendants were found guilty of facilitating extensive copyright infringement ”in a commercial and organized form”, Anonymous launched a coordinated DDoS attack against the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), an organisation responsible for safeguarding recording artists’ rights.[ When co-founders lost their appeal against convictions for encouraging piracy, Anonymous again targeted the IFPI, labelling them ”parasites.” A statement read: ”We will continue to attack those who embrace censorship. You will not be able to hide your ludicrous ways to control us.”
On January 19, 2012, Megaupload, a website providing file-sharing services, was shut down by the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation(FBI). In the hours following the shutdown, hackers took down the sites of the DOJ and FBI, as well as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) using distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. Barrett Brown, described as a spokesperson for Anonymous, called the attack ”the single largest Internet attack in [Anonymous’] history.” With the protests against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) protests only a day old, Brown stated that internet users were ”by-and-far ready to defend an open Internet.”
Although the actions of Anonymous received support, some commentators argued that the denial of service attack risked damaging the anti-SOPA case. Molly Wood of CNET wrote that ”[i]f the SOPA/PIPA protests were the Web’s moment of inspiring, non-violent, hand-holding civil disobedience, #OpMegaUpload feels like the unsettling wave of car-burning hooligans that sweep in and incite the riot portion of the play.” Dwight Silverman of the Houston Chronicle concurred, stating that ”Anonymous’ actions hurt the movement to kill SOPA/PIPA by highlighting online lawlessness.” The Oxford Internet Institute‘s Joss Wright wrote that ”In one sense the actions of Anonymous are themselves, anonymously and unaccountably, censoring websites in response to positions with which they disagree.”
Anonymous claimed responsibility for taking down government websites in the UK in April 2012 in protest against government extradition and surveillance policies. A message was left on Twitter saying it was ”for your draconian surveillance proposals.”
Anonymous activists merged with Occupy Wall Street protesters. Anonymous members descended on New York’s Zucotti Park and organized it partly. After it became known that some Occupy protesters would get violent, Anonymous used social networking to urge Occupy protesters to avoid disorder. Anonymous used Twitter trends to keep protests peaceful.
A similar protest occurred outside the London Stock Exchange in early May 2012 during a May Day Occupy protest.
Alleged Internet predator Chris Forcand, 53, was charged with child sexual and firearm offenses. A newspaper report stated that Forcand was already being tracked by ”cyber-vigilantes before police investigations commenced. A television report identified a ”self-described Internet vigilante group called Anonymous” who contacted the police after some members were ”propositioned” by Forcand. The report stated this was the first time a suspected Internet predator was arrested by the police as a result of Internet vigilantism.
In October 2011, ”Operation Darknet” was launched as an attempt to cease the activities of child porn sites accessed through hidden services in the deep web. Anonymous published in a pastebin link what it claimed were the user names of 1,589 members of Lolita City, a child porn site accessed via the Tor network. Anonymous said that it had found the site via The Hidden Wiki, and that it contained over 100 gigabytes of child pornography. Anonymous launched a denial-of-service attack to take Lolita City offline.
In early 2011, the organisation targeted the Westboro Baptist Church, releasing several videos on a range of related topics, such as their controversial preaching against homosexuality. Several attacks were made on the primary website, one that was made while Shirley Phelps-Roper was debatingTopiary (Jake Davis) a representative of Anonymous in a televised interview on the David Pakman Show. Anonymous carried out another attack on December 16, 2012 in response to Westboro’s picketing of funerals for the victims of the Newtown Massacre. Anonymous is also supporting a petition to the White House to formally recognize the Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group.
- ”Anonymous will continue to target Ugandan government sites and communications until the government of Uganda treats all people including LGBT people equally.”
Parmy cited one research project that found that as many as thirty per cent of posters on 4chan fell into the LGBT category, posters often pretending to be the opposite sex.
Anonymous declared they were going to destroy the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church in reaction to the church claiming they would picket the funerals of the victims of the Connecticut school shootings. The group hacked into the church’s website, releasing the personal information of all church members. On December 21, 2012, the group successfully launched a DDoS attack on the church’s website and hacked into the Twitter account of Shirley Phelps-Roper.
Cyber-attacks and other activities
In October 2011, Anonymous hackers threatened the Mexican drug cartel known as Los Zetas in an online video after one of their members was kidnapped.
On Friday January 25, 2013, Anonymous hacked the United States Sentencing Commission website in an operation titled ”Operation Last Resort”. The first, unsuccessful attack, was launched early Friday morning, followed by a second successful attack around 9pm PST the same day. By 3am PST the site was down and dropped from the DNS Domain Name System, yet the IP address (188.8.131.52) still returned the defaced site’s contents. Anonymous cited the recent suicide of hacktivist Aaron Swartz as a ”line that has been crossed.” The statement suggested retaliation for Swartz’s tragic suicide, which many – including the family – believe was a result of overzealous prosecution by the Department of Justice and what the family deemed a ”bullying” use of outdated computer crime laws.
In response to Operation Pillar of Cloud in November 2012, Anonymous launched a series of attacks on Israeli government websites. Anonymous protested what they called the ”barbaric, brutal and despicable treatment of the Palestinian people.”
On November 30, 2012, the group declared an operation to shut down websites of the Syrian government, in response to an Internet blackout the previous day believed to be imposed by Syrian authorities in an attempt to silence opposition groups of the Syrian civil war.
On July 26, 2007, Fox affiliate KTTV in Los Angeles, California aired a report on Anonymous, calling them a group of ”hackers on steroids,” ”domestic terrorists,” and collectively an ”Internet hate machine.” The report covered an attack on a Myspace user, who claimed to have had his Myspace account ”hacked” into seven times by Anonymous, and plastered with images of gay pornography. The Myspace user also claimed a virus written by Anonymous hackers was sent to him and to ninety friends on his Myspace contact list, crashing thirty-two of his friends’ computers. The report featured an unnamed former ”hacker” who had fallen out with Anonymous and explained his view of the Anonymous culture. In addition, the report also mentioned ”raids” on Habbo, a ”national campaign to spoil the new Harry Potter bookending”, and threats to ”bomb sports stadiums.”
The day following the KTTV report, Wired News blogger and journalist Ryan Singel derided the report, stating that Fox news service had confused the hacker group with ”supremely bored 15-year olds who post obscene pictures” from the English-language imageboard website 4chan, and that the news report was ”by far the funniest prank anyone on the board has ever pulled off.”In February 2008, an Australia-based Today Tonight broadcast included a segment of the KTTV report, preceded by the statement: ”The Church of Scientology has ramped up the offensive against Anonymous, accusing the group of religious bigotry and claiming they are sick, twisted souls.”
Graham Cluley, a security expert for Sophos, argued that Anonymous’ actions against child porn websites hosted on a darknet could be counterproductive, commenting that while their intentions appear beneficial, the removal of illegal websites and sharing networks should be performed by the authorities, rather than Internet vigilantes.
The English language edition of Al Jazeera published regular articles on Anonymous and its activism. The journal also ran opinion pieces on the group, sometimes laudatory, describing it as a future form of internet-based social activism:
”This is the future, whether one approves or not, and the failure on the part of governments and media alike to understand, and contend with the rapid change now afoot, ought to remind everyone concerned why it is that this movement is necessary in the first place.”
In January 2008, Search Engine, a Canadian radio show published by CBC Radio One, began reporting on Project Chanology. Host Jesse Brown called Anonymous ”clowns,” citing their lack of coordination, vulgar humor, and pack mentality, and invited them to confront him in person. On February 7, two members of Anonymous appeared on the show, explaining the nature of the group and the genuine criticism they held for Scientology. After Anonymous held a protest in front of Scientology compounds around the world on February 10, 2008, Brown admitted that they had ”proved me wrong.”
The nature of the protest was unprecedented—picketers wore masks and refused to divulge names—and sparked a follow-up discussion on the show about journalistic standards for source protection, and the meaning of identity. Brown brought the issue to his own workplace, interviewing CBC‘s president Hubert Lacroix in reaction to a conflict between him and an anonymous critic who went by the handle ”Ouimet.”
Reaction from law enforcement agencies
|“||First, who is this group called Anonymous? Put simply, it is an international cabal of criminal hackers dating back to 2003, who have shut down the websites of the U.S. Department of Justice and the F.B.I. They have hacked into the phone lines of Scotland Yard. They are responsible for attacks against MasterCard, Visa, Sony and the Governments of the U.S., U.K., Turkey, Australia, Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Iran, Chile, Colombia and New Zealand.||”|
|—Canadian MP Marc Garneau, 2012
In December 2010, the Dutch police arrested a 16-year old for cyberattacks against Visa, MasterCard and PayPal in conjunction with Anonymous’ DDoS attacks against companies opposing Wikileaks.
In January 2011, the FBI issued more than 40 search warrants in a probe against the Anonymous attacks on companies that opposed Wikileaks. The FBI did not issue any arrest warrants, but issued a statement that participating in DDoS attacks is a criminal offense with a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
Matthew George, a Newcastle, New South Wales resident, concerned with forthcoming Australian internet filtration legislation, was arrested for his participation in Anonymous DDoS activities. George participated in Anonymous IRC discussions, and allowed his computer to be used in a denial of service attack associated with Operation Titstorm. Tracked down by authorities, he was fined $550, though he was not fully aware that his actions were illegal, and believed his participation in Operation Titstorm had been a legal form of civil protest. His experience left him disillusioned with the potential of online anonymity, warning others: ”There is no way to hide on the internet, no matter how hard you cover your tracks you can get caught. You’re not invincible.”
On June 10, 2011, the Spanish police captured three purported members of Anonymous in the cities of Gijon, Barcelona and Valencia. The operation deactivated the main server from which the three men coordinated DDoS attacks. This particular group had made attacks on the web servers of the PlayStation Store, BBVA, Bankia, and the websites of the governments of Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Iran, Chile, Colombia and New Zealand. The operation revealed that their structure consisted of ”cells” which at any given time could coordinate attacks through the downloading of software; the decision-making process to attack occurred in chat rooms. The Spanish national police stated that this operation corresponds to the fact that the Spanish government and NATO considers this group of hackers a threat to national security.
On June 13, 2011, officials in Turkey arrested 32 individuals that were allegedly involved in DDoS attacks on Turkish government websites. These members of Anonymous were captured in different cities of Turkey including Istanbul and Ankara. According to PC Magazine these individuals were arrested after they attacked these websites as a response to the Turkish government demand to ISPs to implement a system of filters that many have perceived as censorship.
During July 19–20, 2011, as many as 20 or more arrests were made of suspected Anonymous hackers in the US, UK, and Netherlands following the 2010 Operation Avenge Assange in which the group attacked PayPal, as well as attacking MasterCard and Visa after they froze Wikileaks accounts. According to US officials statements suspects’ homes were raided and suspects were arrested in Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Washington DC, Florida, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, and Ohio, as well as a 16 year old boy being held by the police in south London on suspicion of breaching the Computer Misuse Act 1990, and four being held in the Netherlands.
On February 28, 2012, Interpol issued warrants for the arrests of 25 people with suspected links to Anonymous, according to a statement from the international police agency. The suspects, between the ages of 17 and 40, were all arrested.
On September 12, 2012; Anonymous spokesman Barrett Brown was arrested at his home in Dallas on charges of threatening an FBI agent. Agents arrested Brown while he was in the middle of a Tinychat session.
AnonOps admin Christopher ”Nerdo” Weatherhead, 22, who organised DDoS attacks against PayPal, known as ”Operation Payback”, was convicted on one count of conspiracy to impair the operation of computers following a guilty verdict by a jury at Southwark Crow in December 2012. He was sent down for 18 months. Rhodes, of Camberwell, south London, got seven months, for conspiring to impair the operation of computers. Co-defendant Peter Gibson, 24, of Hartlepool, was deemed to have played a lesser role in the conspiracy, which he also admitted, and given a six-month suspended sentence.
Fear of retaliation
On January 28, 2012, the Wall Street Journal stated that US law enforcement officers are concerned about cyber-retaliation attacks by the group. The US has been investigating WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, although no charges have been filed and his legal team say the US has no jurisdiction, as the Australian citizen has committed no crimes on U.S. soil. The concern was caused by suspicion that Anonymous was involved in retaliatory attacks. A prosecutor in the investigation faced so many personal intrusions that colleagues became concerned about the possibility of bodily harm, according to journalist Devlin Barrett, who explained the Department of Justice was acting unusually by suppressing the names of officials in public statements to the press, but not in court documents. Barrett said there was debate within the Department of Justice and the FBI over the release of names of officials working on the Megaupload case.