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Anonymous and Social Hacktivism
The popular conception of hackers is one of young men sitting in dark basement rooms for hours upon end, surrounded by empty takeout containers: alone and unaffiliated. Individual hackers rarely influence history, the actions of large corporations, or the governments of the world—unless they can somehow work together and form a collective. The hacktivist group Anonymous seems to have achieved this goal. The group’s beginnings can be traced back to 2003, when individual hackers began posting proposals for collective action on an Internet forum called 4-chan, a simple image-based bulletin board where anyone can post comments and share images— and one of the least regulated parts of the Internet in the early 2000s. At first, the idea was the adoption of a decentralized online community that could act anonymously, but in a coordinated manner. Group actions were usually aligned toward some nebulous goal, with the primary focus being on the members’ own entertainment. For example, Anonymous members hacked the copy-protect codes of DVDs and video games and posted them online. This action enabled other hackers to disable the copy protection and copy these products for free. As the movement grew, some members began to see the potential for greater social and political activity, and social “hacktivism” was born. Anonymous has no leader or formal decision-making mechanism. “Anyone who wants to can be Anonymous and work toward a set of goals…” a member of Anonymous explained. “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’ first move toward a political action came in the form of a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack on the Church of Scientology in 2008. The church had made an attempt to remove an interview with Tom Cruise, a famous church member, from the Internet. The church felt the video injured its image. It succeeded in removing the video from YouTube and other Web sites, but Anonymous posted the video on the Gawker Web site. The effort gave Anonymous a sense of the power it could harness. As the movement grew, Anonymous expanded its targets and attracted media attention. After the Web site WikiLeaks, which relied on donations to support its operations, released large collections of classified American military documents and diplomatic cables, PayPal, MasterCard, and Bank of America announced that they would no longer process donations to WikiLeaks. This action threatened to put the WikiLeaks Web site out of business. In response, Anonymous launched major DDoS attacks on the Web sites of these financial companies. In 2012, Anonymous published the names and credit card information of the subscribers to a newsletter published by the international security think tank, Stratfor, which Anonymous viewed as a reactionary force both online and in the real world. Stratfor customer credit cards were used to make over $500,000 in fraudulent donations to various charities. Also, in 2012, Anonymous attacked the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. In this instance, Anonymous went beyond DDoS attacks on government sites and actually set up satellite transmission stations in all the major cities across Syria to serve as independent media centers in anticipation of the Syrian government’s efforts to cut off its citizens from the Internet. In response to the suicide of Internet activist Aaron Swartz in early 2013, Anonymous briefly corrupted the Web site of the U.S. Sentencing Commission and threatened to release sensitive information concerning the U.S. Department of Justice. Anonymous blamed the justice system for Swartz’s suicide, claiming that prosecutors were pursuing “highly disproportionate sentencing” in cases against some of its members and others, like Swartz, who championed open access to online documents. Swartz was facing federal charges that he stole millions of online documents and could have served up to 35 years in prison. The group’s strategy of using DDoS attacks and publishing personal information is illegal and has exposed numerous members of the collective to police inquiry and legal problems. The Interpol international policing body has been particularly active in its pursuit of Anonymous members. In early 2012, as part of Interpol’s efforts, 25 Anonymous members were arrested in four different countries. Furthermore, an influential member of the collective, known online as “Sabu,” was recently outed as an FBI informant. After participating in the Stratfor hack, Sabu gave information to the FBI leading to the arrest of several Anonymous senior members. However, after the revelation that one of their own had cooperated with the FBI’s efforts against the group, one member posted the following: “Don’t you get it by now? #Anonymous is an idea. #Anonymous is a movement. It will keep growing, adapting and evolving, no matter what.”


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