The Three Monkeys


Hacking Without A Face: Anonymous and Web Censorship

The media has called them "Hackers On Steroids", but they prefer to call themselves "Hacktavists". The question is: Who are Anonymous and what does their emergence mean in a world where internet freedom seems to be constantly under threat.

Anonymous has existed in one form or another since 2003. It all began as a campaign against Scientology, but today Anonymous and splinter groups such as Lulzec campaign against internet censorship in all quarters. It is important for us to decide if their existence has a positive or negative effect, and how much influence do they have over the average web user? I've asked a group of young interested men, the type that make up much of the groups membership, what they think about the movement and its impact.

"I think describing Anonymous (Anon) as a group is a misconception" claims ADS, one of these men. Because it has no real leadership, and its membership can never be properly identified, he argues that the group itself doesn't have one cohesive identity. That means the groups objectives are often hard to identify as anyone can claim to be associated with it. "Some people with more malicious intent can come along and do something to give a wide variety of hacktavists a bad name" he concludes.

"I think describing Anonymous (Anon) as a group is a misconception"

PLV agrees, but thinks that the way the group is publicised is a bigger problem. "I think the Anonymous that is portrayed in the media and the actual Anonymous group that it originated from are totally different entities and that the public would be surprised to know the difference between the two".

"Media misconceptions and depictions have probably made some more naive web users frightened of Anonymous with ideas like they can blow up your computer remotely using their own computer"

The idea behind anonymous is to have multiple users working together on and offline to form an anarchic, digitized global brain. It began on internet image boards where users communicate on any number of topics but don't have a profile. They post anonymously and when they join together they create a faceless collective.

All of this stems from different elements in internet culture: the Guy Fawkes masks Anonymous campaigners wear are from the comic book "V For Vendetta", they communicate through image boards, forums and IRC channels, and they have no leader. In recent times the group has adopted their own motto; "We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us."

Recently the group has come to light as a type of anti-corporate warrior, a defender of internet freedoms in an age of cruel executives and bumbling politicians. The weapon with which this champion of the internet seeks to right the wrongs of the world is the Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC). It may sound like something out of Star Wars, but in fact this is a simple program used for DDOS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks. DDOSing could be described as the bluntest weapon in a hacker's arsenal, in fact, it's not hacking at all. DDOS basically consists of repeatedly logging onto a website. If enough users can do this simultaneously then the site will be overloaded and it will crash.

The tactic is as effective as it is basic, recently sites including Mastercard, Amazon and Paypal were taken down in support of Wikileaks. Lulzec were one of the most well known groups involved in such raids. In March 2012 two Irish teenagers, Darren Martyn and Donncha O' Cearbhail, were arrested by Gardai as part of an FBI swoop due to their links to the group. It seems that involvement with such groups may be more common in Ireland than we think. PLV agrees "Yes. I did take part in some of the original large scale Anonymous DDOS attacks in 2007 and 2008". ADS elaborates on his own experiences; "I have in fact been asked to DDOS websites by people I have met, however knowing how easy it is to track these things I would never consider taking part, as it would be dangerous"

Recently the attention of internet users has been directed at proposals such as SOPA, PIPA and CISPA. These bills, and legislation like them around the world have originated partly in response to a massive upsurge in music, movie and software piracy on the web in recent years.

SOPA was the piece of legislation that received the most publicity and a campaign was waged around the world to try and combat it and what many see as careless censorship of the internet. Numerous major site participated in a blackout on January 18th this year in order to highlight the issue.

"If we allow them to set up the infrastructure to take down a website at will what's to stop them from doing so?"

The action was spearheaded by Wikipedia. Sue Gardner, Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation claimed "SOPA and PIPA are just indicators of a much broader problem. All around the world, we're seeing the development of legislation intended to fight online piracy, and regulate the Internet in other ways, that hurt online freedoms."

Anonymous, of course, was also involved, deploying the LOIC to attack websites of SOPA's supporters. Their actions were widely supported due to the way many internet users perceived the bill. "I consider them to be akin to the Nazis burning books all those years ago. They just represent more needless power for the ruling elite and their corporate sponsors in an area that they have frankly no experience and knowledge" admits PLV when talking about the bills.

ADS agrees "SOPA, PIPA, CISPA: All devils under a different name, when we start signing over our internet to governments we might as well give them our damn souls". This shows only a fraction of the anger that exists among many internet users when these forms of censorship is mentioned. Underlying it all is the fear of losing what is seen as their freedom to express pretty much anything they want. ADS explains "If we allow them to set up the infrastructure to take down a website at will what's to stop them from doing so?"

Members Of Anonymous Wearing Guy Fawkes MasksWith positions like these it's not hard to understand why Anonymous enjoys such support in some areas. In an age where people are finding 99% of existence more boring than ever, it lets some people think they're part of a major protest movement, a resistance that fights the powers that be in order to secure freedom for all. And most importantly at all it can be done with virtually no risk; only a tiny fraction of people involved in DDOS attacks are ever arrested. It seems that anonymity is becoming a key aspect of the modern protest.

But, as ADS said, Anonymous is just a name, and anyone can claim allegiance. This has lead to the movement showing a far darker side. In 2011, Anonymous chose to attack The Westboro Baptist Church, famed for their website, which many find offensive. Nevertheless their position is protected by guarantees of protection of free speech in the US constitution.

Anonymous issued a warning "Cease and desist your protest campaign in the year 2011...close your public Web sites. Should you ignore this warning...the propaganda and detestable doctrine that you promote will be eradicated; the damage incurred will be irreversible, and neither your institution nor your congregation will ever be able to fully recover." Anonymous later denied that the message was official, it was simply sent in their name.

Are these attacks on big business justified acts of protest, as many supporters claim? Or are they simply acts of cyber-terrorism? PLV believes it is: "While I admit that it has had a rather large impact as of late with SOPA, I think that it does only add to the problem. Two wrongs don't make a right." On the other hand ADS considers it to be more of a grey area, "Attacking websites is not an appropriate response in most cases but in cases like banks and such where the goal is to highlight the security flaws it is important and beneficial."

Anonymous have become more than a one trick pony, an important element of the internet and their fight against web censorship has been well publicised. The movement prides itself on protecting free speech online, but is that what it's doing? Or is it actually adding to the problem in a muddled battleground? It seems that as with everything with the group, little is clear. If members of Anonymous had their way, censorship on the internet may be a lot worse than it is.

Cian Jordan