December 10, 2010
Internet subcultures rarely make front page news. But when the mysterious forces of Anonymous took it upon themselves to attack opponents of WikiLeaks , the whistle-blowing website, their success took everyone – not least victims such as Visa , MasterCard and PayPal – by surprise.
This year has seen military and security experts often warn about the prospects of “cyberwarfare”.
Few expected the most prominent assaults against large companies to come from a scattered group of anarchists and idealists with no identifiable leader, membership or nationality.
The loose internet grouping that calls itself Anonymous has been notorious in web circles for years, particularly for its apparently random attacks on the music industry, Kiss singer Gene Simmons, YouTube and the Scientologists. Its wilfully illiterate grammar and black humour has permeated the internet far beyond the 4chan messageboard, which originally spawned it.
Even as the more serious matters of attacks on big companies were plotted this week, Anonymous followers in 4chan’s open chat rooms chimed in with insults and jokes. But with what it has dubbed “Operation Payback” the group has mounted its most ideological crusade yet.
Attempts to scupper WikiLeaks last week , as payment and web hosting companies pulled their support for the site amid intense political pressure, have made Julian Assange, the whistle-blowing website’s imprisoned founder, the pin-up for Anonymous’s campaign against censorship.
“WikiLeaks is a litmus test for freedom of speech and freedom of information,” one Operation Payback participant told the Financial Times.
Anonymous actively tries to avoid an easy definition, writes Tim Bradshaw in London.
Originally an offshoot of the 4chan messageboard, its activists do not like to be referred to as hackers or even as a single group.
As an “internet gathering”, they are simply whoever decides to sign up to their cause on any given day – and they follow the lead of whoever comes up with the latest online attack or prank.
The main thing that unites “Anons” is the willingness to lash out collectively at organisations they see as threatening the free flow of information and ideas online. Attacks on WikiLeaks, the whistle-blowing site, have acted as a rallying cry and recruiting sergeant for “Operation Payback”, an offshoot within Anonymous.
Anons hail from all over the world, and though many live up to the teenage-boy stereotype, they like to see themselves as “average internet citizens” – albeit with the technical wherewithal to disrupt global payment processing groups.
“When you screw with Anonymous, you screw with the public,” one Anon told the Financial Times, “because Anonymous is the public.”
Speaking to the FT, a group of “Anons” – as Anonymous members call themselves – said people of any political stripe were welcome in the group. “Good ideas are good ideas no matter who puts them up,” said one Anon, an American in his late 20s who admits to having limited technical know-how.
When issues such as whom to attack are put on the floor of their 24-hour-a-day internet chat rooms, whoever is logged in at the time votes. Some administrators can kick people out of the discussion but chaos reigns.
What some would see as infighting, Anons see as a decentralised approach that keeps them fleet of foot.
“Having no command structure in Anonymous, we are not vulnerable to having that command structure taken down,” one said. “If someone starts trying to be a ringleader, everyone tells them to shut up. If you jump behind a leader and that leader is taken down, the entire movement is vulnerable.”
Just as Anonymous welcomes all who subscribe to its extreme free-speech agenda, it is merciless to those who – like a 16-year-old Dutch member arrested this week – get left behind. “Everyone knows the risks when they step into this,” the Anon said, claiming that he would not be upset if his own bank account details ended up on WikiLeaks. “If my information gets out in the public, that’s my fault.”
He said it would “suck” if leaked military secrets caused harm to US troops but that would not sway his beliefs.
“The internet is something sacred – don’t screw with it, leave it alone,” he said. “If [authorities] are willing to gun down WikiLeaks in broad daylight, they will come down on you as well. If you join us, you have a voice . . . Nobody is going to stop Anonymous unless you pull the plug on the internet.”
Operation Payback has hit targets far and wide. As well as Amazon , the trader, and payment companies, websites belonging to the Swedish government ; the Dutch police; Senator Joe Lieberman, a critic of WikiLeaks; and Sarah Palin, the former US vice-presidential candidate, were targeted.
WikiLeaks did not endorse the attacks.
Still, Anonymous was able to gather enough support to launch a basic and yet effective strike on the websites of some of the world’s largest organisations.
Anonymous encouraged “hacktivists” to download a simple tool – known as the “low orbit ion cannon” – that allows their computers to be used to inundate the targeted website with requests and bring it down.
Anonymous said it was not trying to knock over services for the general public, merely the “online public face” of offending organisations.