How the loose-knit hacktivist collective Anonymous made the activists’ dream of electronic civil disobedience a reality.
“As far as power is concerned, the streets are dead capital!” proclaimed the activist art collective Critical Art Ensemble in 1996. With the internet age dawning, the group urged activists to go digital. Civil disobedience on the street, they argued, was symbolic but ineffective. Money and power were no longer bound to city centers—or any physical location.
Through Anonymous, the world has finally seen this vision for a new activism materialize, though it was not the activists’ creation. To the contrary, Anonymous was created deep inside the internet, in an imageboard forum known as 4chan. On 4chan’s /b/ board, reserved for random topics, computer buffs would entertain one another with shocking, politically incorrect creations.
They also coordinated to hijack or disable websites, often through distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. Sinister as that may sound, these attacks amount to little more than an intentional traffic jam on a web server, rendering the site temporarily useless. Such acts weren’t malicious, but through a variety of coordinated pranks, /b/ users developed the practices that would come to define Anonymous. So when the Church of Scientology attempted to end the mockery of a certain Tom Cruise Scientology video, they retaliated online and in the streets, to expose what they viewed as the Church’s history of illegal acts and human rights violations.
With this, the nascent Anonymous set foot in that place where hacking and activism overlap. They didn’t leap in wholeheartedly, nor did they draw back. In 2009, the collective set its sights on defending a file sharing site known as The Pirate Bay. After DDoS attacks on the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, the group released a statement reading, “We will continue to attack those who embrace censorship.” True to its word, defense of the free exchange of information remained a high priority. When MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal blocked payments to WikiLeaks in 2010, Anonymous targeted those websites. Then, when Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali blocked access to WikiLeaks, members of Anonymous planned attacks on Tunisian government and stock exchange websites. They also helped Tunisians find ways to communicate online, working around government restrictions and surveillance. With each operation, more explicitly activist hackers joined the ranks of Anonymous. By the end of OpTunisia in early 2011, the group’s reputation as an influential, if loosely organized, hacktivist collective was solidified.
So began a whirlwind of hacking. Members hacked Egyptian government sites and provided a virtual safe haven for Libyan rebels as the Arab Spring gained momentum. They leaked email addresses and passwords of government officials in Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, and Morocco. They hacked and humiliated the security firm HBGary Federal after its chief executive threatened to expose group members. They hacked in retaliation for the arrests of members of Food Not Bombs for feeding homeless people in the park. They helped to organize a gathering at a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station after the transit system cut off cell phone service to prevent peaceful assembly in protest of a police shooting.
Anonymous also helped herald the arrival of Occupy Wall Street, with members participating in both movements simultaneously. Quinn Norton wrote in Wired that Anonymous had become “a self-appointed immune system for the internet, striking back at anyone the hive mind perceived as an enemy of freedom, online or offline.” On the street, they have maintained the custom of wearing Guy Fawkes masks, which reinforces the idea of anonymity and pays homage to the group’s origins—it was the mask donned by Epic Fail Guy, a character on /b/, way back when. They continued to hack: the U.S. Department of Justice, the CIA, Interpol, Sony, Monsanto.
They hacked through two raids, which brought the arrests of over 100 members worldwide. One Anon, Christopher Doyon, faces 15 years in a penitentiary for his role in a half-hour virtual sit-in. “The greater the intensity of defense and punishment, the greater the power-value,” Critical Art Ensemble wrote prophetically in ‘96. In an interview with Canada’s National Post last May, Doyon seemed to answer. “Our entire world is being controlled and operated by tiny invisible 1s and 0s that are flashing through the air and flashing through the wires around us. So if that’s what controls our world, ask yourself who controls the 1s and the 0s?”