Whither Anonymous?

Last Sunday my family and I made a visit to the newly opened ‘Spy Museum’ in Washington D.C. It was what you might imagine, over priced glamorization of some choice episodes from the OSS and the CIA’s long and checkered history. We saw the lipstick pistol, very small electronic bugs buried in dung, a hidden communication device disguised as a tree stump on the outskirts of a Russian air base and so forth. Fascinating stuff that decorated a carefully sculptured history (no mention of the MK Ultra program, for example, nor Contra Aid for that matter). At the very end was the tour de force, an elaborate room whose ceiling and walls flashed ominous images of devastation wrought by the next big threat upon which the CIA has set its laser like focus: cyber terrorism. Ill defined and thus even more frightening, the Spy Museum included everything from simple hacks into government websites along with devastating attacks on the electrical grid under the rubric of ‘cyber terrorism’. As if in confirmation of such dire threats, just last Thursday, January 19th, a group of hacktivists known collectively as Anonymous made headlines by taking down the FBI’s website, the Justice Department’s website and they attempted to take down the White House’s website. They also dropped Universal Music Group, RIAA, Motion Picture Association of America and the Warner Music Group.

Barrett Brown who has made something of a name for himself translating Anonymous’ various communications noted to RT online that “It was in retaliation for Megaupload,” a massive file sharing site with about 50 million daily users, a playground for cyber geeks and the hacker community. When the federal agents raided Megaupload’s site and arrested four people linked to Megaupload in New Zealand they did the equivalent of putting their hands into a beehive. Mere hours after the arrest were made, the Department of Justice site went down and next the Universal sites.

In addition, they also ‘doxed’ or released personal information about former senator Christopher Dodd and his family on public sites, presumably for chairing the MPAA, a major supporter of both PIPA (Protect IP Act) and SOPA (Stop Online Privacy Act) legislation. Finally, Brown promised that Anonymous-aligned hacktivists were pursuing a joint effort with others to “damage campaign raising abilities of remaining Democrats who support SOPA.”

Startling information to be sure, and the kind of digital muscle flexing that makes every Network Administrator East (or West) of the Mississippi sit up and take notice. But is Anonymous a true danger to our culture in the egregious manner that the Spy Museum would have us believe? Or is Anonymous doing mostly positive work (after all, stopping SOPA is a net good thing in most progressive’s view) but using less than stellar methods?

Like the CIA, Anonymous has its own checkered history. Their first true widespread notoriety probably began with their outing of a Tom Cruise Scientology Video on YouTube in 2008.

According to Wikipedia, “On January 14, 2008, a video produced by the Church featuring an interview with Tom Cruise was leaked to the Internet and uploaded to YouTube. The Church of Scientology issued a copyright violation claim against YouTube requesting the removal of the video. In response to this, Anonymous formulated Project Chanology. Calling the action by the Church of Scientology a form of Internet censorship, members of Project Chanology organized a series of denial-of-service attacks against Scientology websites, prank calls, and black faxes to Scientology centers.”

Project Chanology offers in a nutshell the basic ‘working ethos’ of Anonymous. Freeing information and punishing those who would ‘restrict’ the flow of information through cyber attacks of one stripe or another.

From 2008 to the present this basic pattern is repeated over and over again. But to suggest that Anonymous is without a conscience or are simply kids playing grown up games would also be a mistake. In 2010 and 2011, Anonymous carried out Operation Paypack which successfully punished PayPal and major credit card vendors for refusing payment to the Wikileaks site after the famous Cablegate release. They also came out in support of Bradley Manning and threatened “to disrupt activities at Quantico by cyber-attacking communications, exposing private information about personnel, and other harassment methods .”

Most famously, Anonymous is reputed to have had a hand in the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011. The websites of the government of Tunisia were targeted by Anonymous due to censorship of the WikiLeaks documents and the Tunisian Revolution. “Anonymous also released the names and passwords of the email addresses of Middle Eastern governmental officials, in support of the Arab Spring. Countries targeted included officials from Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco.”

Finally, Anonymous, along with Ad Busters of Canada have been associated with the original Occupy Wall Street Movement that has grown to include every major city in the United States.

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In an effort to ferret out the good from the bad and to try to work through what we are to make of Anonymous (if anything), I’ve included an extended discussion below that I had this week with a series of APV members and friends online. The kickoff for the discussion is the article on Anonymous’s latest round of attacks against the government and Universal sites on Thursday.

Mike: [In the RT article] Brown, adds that “more is coming” and Anonymous-aligned hacktivists are pursuing a joint effort with others to “damage campaign raising abilities of remaining Democrats who support SOPA.” So we trade one kind of paternalism for another in a process of absolutes? Maybe Anonymous knows what’s best for you and me, but I’m not ready to condone the sabotaging of elections. This is repressive by any other name, just like the bill it seeks to defeat.

M. L.: Since it’s a collective group of individuals who do not always agree on things, crowd-sourced hacktivist actions only work if there is majority support among enough participants to have impact. I find it interesting that Barrett Brown has been tapped to be their spokesman, not by the group but by media forces who cannot cope with a leaderless assemblage. It would be far more accurate to call him a translator – his statements are reported as if he’s speaking for the group, but what he’s doing is just reporting, in English sentences, what he’s understanding out of what’s being discussed in extremely geeky language by clusters of randomly affiliated interested parties. They’ve doxed Dodd – wish they’d leave the kids out when they do that.

Jack: I think Mike is right, but with a few caveats. Hackers and hacktivists are really two separate terms and two separate entities. Hacktivists at least nominally engage in socially relevant activities. Hackers are just hackers, mostly lone geeks who get off on controlling their e-environment. Hacktivist ostensibly take it to the next level and direct their fun and games at socially relevant targets.

I remain largely ambivalent about their activities, but I would suggest without them, Wikileaks would have long ago been shut down (they forced Paypal et al, to give up their payments to Wikileaks in a very Robin Hoodesque swarm). This merits consideration. And I think there’s a kind of false equivalence involved in suggesting they are as ‘repressive’ as legislation that would shut down ISPs that link to ‘pirated’ material. Thus far, their actions are largely symbolic. No one has been ‘permanently’ taken down and words like ‘repressive’ are over blown, what might be more accurate is inconvenient.

And THAT, alone, is fine by me. A day or two of inconvenience in the lopsided war that is being waged between profit driven industries (music, movie) who have countless millions for lobbying efforts and who mean to permanently take down anyone who has links to pirated material against all the rest of us who depend on the internet for the only decent information flow available strikes me as a somewhat minor inconvenience. My main concern is their activity will engender an over reaction and escalation of ‘security’ type activity which slows down things for everyone. Thus I think Mike’s right, but it’s not that they’re equally ‘repressive’ , it’s that their hacktivist activities in this case could result in some serious blowback and escalation that everyone is going to regret. It could even strengthen the proponents of SOPA’s hand, which would be really tragic.

Mike: I consider shutting down web sites and limiting access to information more than inconvenient. It’s repressive. And paternalistic. At this point it may not match the threat of SOPA, but the potential for “hacktivism” to bring a kind of anarchy is, I believe, a real concern. I’m not willing to accept repression in the name of fighting repression, particularly in this instance when we have a small group of people, answerable to no one, making unilateral decisions that affect us all. The fight should be joined WITH information, not its suppression.

M. L.: Without Anonymous intervention, we wouldn’t still have Wikileaks, so we’d have less information.

Jack: It’s a good point, M. L.  I’m still a little curious about this sweeping use of the term ‘repression’. If I were to saw down a bulletin board advertising child porn, would that be repressive? (Anonymous has done the equivalent, digitally) If I were to throw a blanket over a billboard promising ‘no interest loans’–which we know inevitably result in ballooning rates after a set period, would that be repressive? Or better, if I were to simply mark up that billboard with a paint brush and write something like ‘this is a lie!’…would that be repressive? I think a bit more nuance is needed.

M. L.: I’m conflicted, Jack, as a free-speech advocate, I’m in favor of all of those things, in theory. Actions always have unintended consequences, though, so I’d be less than thrilled with property destruction; please don’t saw it down. The temporary, non-destructive methods that Anonymous uses are pretty effective. I don’t like doxing because of the potential for violent repercussions against homes and families.

Jack: ‎M.L. – I’m still muddling through the questions myself, but I agree that the whole doxing thing is a bridge too far. It’s mean-spirited and dangerous besides.

Donna: I don’t know enough about Anonymous – because of its secrecy – to be able to say much about it. But it’s represented globally, so their objectives are more broadly considered than what would necessarily be considered from a national prospective. Maybe that’s good, but I’m not comfortable with a powerful, secret, global organization making decisions, such as to shut down government sites for the American people, or as Mike said, sabotaging elections. That’s my only point. Everything they do falls under that premise whether it’s considered helpful, repressive, or whatever. Unbridled power never ends well. I’m not denying that they have chosen some seemingly helpful things to do. I’m just mindful of the danger they could at some point present.

Mike: A billboard advertising child porn would be illegal, as determined by the laws of our society, therefore taking it down wouldn’t, in my view, be repressive. However, I think covering a sign that advertised low-interest loans would be, even if those loans hold some hidden dangers. To continue with Jack’s example, better to erect a sign next to the original pointing out the dangers. Another analogy might consider a book in a library whose philosophy you disagree with. Would it be o.k. to simply remove the book? I don’t believe so. I’d prefer to be the one who decides what’s good and bad for me, what’s perilous or not. Not some faceless collection of hackers who answer to no one.

Jack: ‎Mike – Thanks for the response–good discussion.

This is unfair, I know, but I just couldn’t resist the observation: ” a small group of people, answerable to no one, making unilateral decisions that affect us all”…you mean like… corporate CEOs and higher finance moguls that control 90% of our media output (digitally and otherwise)? That small group of people? 🙂

Actually, in a more serious vein, your point is taken. Arbitrary actions by a small group of self designated vigilantes or CEOs can lead to bad results. And as Donna has pointed out, concentrated power like this tends toward corruption. So there’s certainly a cause for concern. But perhaps the difference lies in terms of the practical effects of the hacktivists. We know with almost 100% certainty that SOPA will have a negative, repressive effect on the free flow of information on the web. The discussion would be around how catastrophic. I don’t think we can say that with any certainty about hacktivists’ activities–they are free agents–there will be times when their activities have lousy consequences, but other times, they can actually have positive outcomes (Wikileaks, stopping child porn, etc). They are wild cards, to be sure, and inherently anarchic. I’m just not convinced that a certain level of anarchy is not necessary at this juncture in time of the Empire’s growth. And by Empire I mean the consolidated power inherent in that small group of corporate, political and financial elites that drive much of our media and financial world (the ultimate small group of people, answerable to no one). Empire, in other words, as [Antonio] Negri might have used it.

By one view, marginalized actors like Anonymous are yeast in a heavy bread, their tyranny or ability to ‘repress’ will necessarily be temporary, and fleeting. They are outlaws, after all. But so was Robin Hood, so was Che Guevara. No one is saying lineup behind Anonymous, no one really can say that, anyhow. So your response to their activities is absolutely reasonable, but it misses the larger point that Anonymous by and large are playful jokers. I think we’re talking about a very youthful (in spirit, if not in age) collective of free agents who are expressing their ‘power’ within a legally conquered geography. In this context, the book analogy is not really accurate. They are not stealing the book, they are temporarily hiding it and tweaking the noses of those who wrote the book in the first place. The reason people tend to like Anonymous at some level is because they are transgressive, they do break rules and they don’t want the calm desperation of what the people who wrote the book say should be the limits of our discourse. Is this out of legal bounds? Sure. That’s the point. You would not be reading the disturbing and sometimes sadly hilarious exchanges of diplomats around the world if Anonymous hadn’t ‘repressed’ PayPal for a short, but deeply instructive period. Could this get out of hand? Certainly. Again, that’s the point. In the old TV show Get Smart there were two agencies pitted against each other: Chaos and Control. In high falutin’ literary terms we would say it’s the tension between Apollo and Dionysus. Civilization has always had these two rails. You really can’t eliminate either rail, and, in some ways, digitally, Anonymous may be a ‘necessary’ aberration, that bit of a digital crack that let’s the light in.

What I fear, as I mentioned earlier, isn’t Anonymous’ activities. I fear the blowback that might be caused by what amounts to their larks. The security types around government agencies are incredibly paranoid and would think nothing of locking down much of the web in order to maintain their sense of ‘control’. They tend to overplay most threats, and their efforts to ‘remove’ the threats or ‘control’ them usually lead to truly bad outcomes. Our so-called global war on terror is an example of a hideously overblown response by ‘security’ minded individuals. Also, if you take a look at Anonymous’ actual activities they have ‘freed’ much more information than they have ever removed from the public domain, and have been mostly Robin Hoodesque in their activities.

If I were to identify an archetype to associate with Anonymous, it would be the Joker or Trickster (in Indian lore, it would be the Coyote). The Trickster breaks the rules of the gods or nature, sometimes maliciously–true– but usually with positive effects. It’s not a matter of saying Anonymous shouldn’t do this or that, or they should follow such and such rules. Rules are their playgrounds, after all. Breaking the rules is their raison d’être. As good progressives, they present a quandary, to be sure, but one important example of a trickster I would mention in their defense is Prometheus, in Greek mythology, who stole fire from the gods to give it to man.

Mike: ‎”Legally conquered?” That’s quite a euphemism. Will we be willing to settle for calling the hackers “legal conquerors” if the bank accounts raided or the web sites vandalized are our own? Or “tricksters?” I am concerned about the consequences of Anonymous’ actions–in the example of the SOPA & PIPA controversy their attempts to suppress the speech and political activity of those who supported the bill, which after all has at its core a legitimate concern about copyright violation. And particularly their way of operating without consensus in administering a kind of vigilante justice. That cabal you speak of that “games” the economy in this country, and inordinately influences elections, is a real threat, one that has recently been spotlighted by the Occupy Movement. But one of the most important, and I would say successful, aspects of the Occupy Movement has been the understanding that a consensus is critical to decision-making. The idea, which accompanies the actions of Anonymous–that it’s o.k. for a small group of people, or even one disgruntled individual, not accountable in any way, to decide what’s appropriate regarding National security, or to sabotage the campaign (maybe rig an election?) of someone they don’t consider to be on the right side of an issue–is, the way I see it, a dangerous lean towards chaos. My advocacy is for more direct and open action in the fight for transparency and financial justice in this country. The Occupy movement has shown that can be effective. Anyway, Jack, as always, a good discussion. I appreciate your take on the subject(s.)

Mike: ‎…and you too, M. L. I enjoyed the exchange.

Jack: ‎Mike -good discussion back atcha! I just wanted to quickly clarify a point that I don’t think I communicated clearly. When I talk about a ‘collective of free agents who are expressing their power within a legally conquered geography’, I mean that the ‘legally conquered geography’ is the digital universe in which they operate–not that they are ‘legally operating’ but the exact opposite. The digital universe is legally defined by entities (copyright holders, governments, corporations) with far more power and ‘repressive capability’ than anything Anonymous could hope for. Hence the term ‘legally conquered’; I think this is close to the way Anonymous sees themselves as well –as digital ‘liberators’ of information that is ‘repressed’ by larger quasi legal entities–whether those entities are governments, corporations, law firms, etc….So they would never call themselves ‘legal conquerors’ –that wouldn’t even makes sense to them, but more like ‘legal liberators’…Again, this is by way of clarification, not that I necessarily agree or even advocate this kind of activity.

M. L.: I think the Trickster is an apt archetype. One truth is that Anonymous is not an organization. The way any “op” goes down is that someone or ones is persuasive enough in their argument, has enough information to take action and a plan. They ask for assistance and if their plan has “merit” with others then it is acted on. If the plan doesn’t convince others to participate, then there aren’t enough players to cause impact and it doesn’t proceed. At any point along the way, folks can and do get up and walk away from the keyboard. Others might hear of it and join in. Still others might disagree and act to thwart that plan. It would be extremely difficult to corrupt that process, since the participants can change at any moment…. These are certainly interesting times.

Donna:  That’s true. And I would guess more “hacktivism” is probably coming our way. You can call them tricksters, but their power is just as corruptible as all power, and their potential just as ominous. Like actions of solidarity in other forms, it depends on whether you agree with what they’re doing at the time. Because it’s a diverse group of individual, global thinkers, we can’t depend on or trust that they will always act in our interest, or the country’s. They don’t create solutions – their talent is to disrupt, and what “they” decide to disrupt is not of or by the people – it’s only for the people as Anonymous perceives our needs. Do we need Anonymous at this time in our country? World? Again, that depends on what you think. If the answer is yes, we have them. If the answer is no, we have them anyway.

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