By Jake Frenkel
The world recently mourned the victims of the Paris attacks in November of last year. After the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claimed responsibility, a network of hackers promised revenge. This group, known as Anonymous, received a surprising amount of support and admiration from many on social media who know little about the hackers. However, this encouragement is naïve; though their current campaign against (ISIL) may be praiseworthy, it is not enough to justify support. This resembles the situation of the widely condemned Bashar al-Assad regime, which wages war on the Islamic State while engaging in brutal acts of its own. In fact, Anonymous has more in common with terrorist groups than one might think. While Anonymous may not pose an immediate threat, their history of intimidation tactics and criminal behavior illustrates that the group must not be encouraged.
In 2003 a 15-year-old boy named Christopher Poole unknowingly designed the foundation of the hacking group known today as Anonymous. Poole founded 4chan, a simplistic website which allows users to post pictures and comments. It was originally intended for sharing Japanese anime, but has grown to include memes, Internet pranks (like Rickrolling), and surprisingly, roots for political activism. Individuals who post on 4chan without entering a screen name are automatically assigned the title “Anonymous.” About a year after the website’s founding, users on Poole’s website began to joke that Anonymous was actually just one individual; this idea quickly developed into the formation of Anonymous as an independent entity.
The earliest objective of the group was the “pursuit of Lulz.” Their mission, popularly referred to as “trolling,” was to enrage and offend as many people as possible. The self-proclaimed “geeks” typically achieved trolling through obscene computer pranks. For example, a group of Anons—members of Anonymous—decided to join a children’s virtual reality game called Habbo Hotel. Using game-assigned avatars, Anons would spend their days blocking other users from entering the virtual pool, and forming themselves into swastikas. This type of humor kept the group active and unrecognized for many years.
It wasn’t until late 2006 that the group became known for “hactivism,” a means of achieving political change through hacking. The transition was prompted when Hal Turner, a white nationalist and Holocaust denier, consistently upset 4chan Anons during his weekly radio broadcast, The Hal Turner Show. After Turner was supposedly rude to a well-known 4chan user during his program, Anonymous decided to take action. Initially, they put ads for escorts on Craigslist under Turner’s name, ordered hundreds of pizzas to be delivered to his house, and prank-called him when he was on-air. Seemingly unfulfilled, they then shut down his website using a DDoS attack. A disturbed denial of services (DDoS) works by mimicking the act of clicking on a web address repeatedly, sending significant traffic to a single webpage until it overloads the website and, in turn, crashes the server. Both highly illegal and very easy to use, DDoS has been the most effective weapon of Anonymous ever since. Finally, during an attack on Turner’s personal emails, Anonymous publicly released information that he was an FBI informant, which led to Turner’s public humiliation and eventual resignation. Anonymous, as a result, was suddenly propelled into the new realm of political activism. The group shifted from an immature culture aimed at finding humor to an army that fights for its own political ideologies.
“For Anons, freedom of information is especially vital on the Internet.”
Anonymous established their center principle in 2008. That year, Gawker Media released a video of Tom Cruise talking about the Church of Scientology. His serious nature and the enigmatic description he provides makes Cruise appear psychotic. Unsurprisingly, the entertaining video quickly went viral. The Church reacted by threatening websites to take down the video under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Believing Scientology’s actions were an attempt at censorship, Anonymous retaliated with a DDoS attack on the Church’s website. Anonymous then coordinated a series of attacks on Scientology centers across the globe. These ranged from draining their printer ink by sending an excessive number of faxes, to allegedly issuing death threats towards Scientology leaders. As warned in a threatening YouTube video, on February 10th thousands of individuals disguised in Guy Fawkes masks swarmed Scientology centers from Sydney to Tel Aviv to Los Angeles in order to protest. Even though the protests continued for a year, they were fairly ineffective. However, Anonymous had found its guiding belief; the first amendment was not intended to have restrictions on free speech. For Anons, freedom of information is especially vital on the Internet. Frequently though, the protests and attacks to destroy the Church of Scientology appeared to contradict their mission of First Amendment protection.
A few years later, Anons began to go after governments. During the Arab Spring, Anonymous once again ordered many pizzas in an effort to troll—this time to embassies. Members also used social media to assist citizens in Egypt and Tunisia, hoping to provide a “megaphone” once those governments turned off Internet access. Anonymous also shut down government websites in countries experiencing uprisings. While the Anons’ actions may seem heroic or noble at first glance, they are actually demonstrating their willingness to directly oppose governments. Anons have since coordinated attacks on American government websites including those belonging to local governments, police departments, the Federal Reserve, the CIA, and the U.S. Senate.
The network of hackers has also attacked private businesses. After MasterCard and PayPal ceased to accept donations to the controversial organization WikiLeaks, Anonymous shut down the websites, costing an estimated $5.5 million in lost business. During May 7-12, 2011, Anonymous hacked Fox News and released information on ‘X Factor’ contestants. A couple days later, UK banks were targeted and account details were posted online. An Anon was also behind the mass nude photo leak through iCloud; the victims included Jenny McCarthy, Rihanna, Kirsten Dunst, Kate Upton, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Jennifer Lawrence.
LulzSec—a six member subgroup of Anonymous—was responsible for some of the most disturbing attacks. The subgroup carried out the well-known hack on Sony in which personal and credit card information of millions of PlayStation users became public. Separately, innocent victims suffered from epileptic episodes after the hackers posted an animated GIF with flashing lights on an epilepsy-help website. LulzSec’s most important target was Aaron Barr, an intelligence contractor who attempted to unmask the leaders of Anonymous. An article published by Wired reported, “When Barr went public with his findings, Anonymous took down his website, stole his e-mails, deleted the company’s backup data, trashed Barr’s Twitter account and remotely wiped his iPad.”
“It seems as though Anonymous wants governments to be absolutely transparent with the people, but not the other way around.”
In regard to their most recent threat against ISIL, Anonymous has had a negligible impact. Aside from taking down ISIL-affiliated Twitter accounts, the hackers’ announcements about what they plan to do have come up short. Gabrielle Coleman, an anthropologist at McGill University and expert on Anonymous, has stated that “only a fifth of Anons are hackers—the rest are ‘geeks and protesters.’” Even though this disparity is becoming increasingly obvious, Anonymous has rejected the idea of sharing information on ISIL with the American government, saying it would be “deeply stupid.” It seems as though Anonymous wants governments to be absolutely transparent with the people, but not the other way around.
Why should one terrorist organization be supported and another condemned? While Anonymous has not murdered innocent civilians like ISIL, it has clearly used intimidation to further their own political agenda. Consequently, the American government has rightfully demonstrated that it will not allow their continued aggression. Dozens of Anons have already been arrested over the past decade due to disregard for American laws. The cyberterrorists attempt to hide their criminal behavior by describing their actions as “protests,” just as they hide their faces behind masks and computer screens. Anonymous, while once inspired by “geeky pranks,” has overreached into dangerous territory.
Ideally, Anonymous as a whole would be condemned by the American people and our government. At the very least, the hackers should not be encouraged. The group is dysfunctional and chaotic, lacking in both leadership and vision. Furthermore, the threat they pose to law-abiding citizens throughout the world is far greater than what they offer in protection. Those who respect the United States Constitution and the traditional understanding of free speech should be offering neither encouragement nor assistance to Anonymous. Regardless of the organization’s incompetence, supporting Anonymous means supporting a network of unaccountable, law-breaking individuals who hope to spread fear. Ultimately, supporting Anonymous means supporting a terrorist organization.