Media, Protests, World — October 24, 2011 at 2:34 am

#hacktivism

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Illustration by Esha Maharishi

We have learned by now to expect and to fear the masked army of the internet: Anonymous. It makes the consumer aware of the volatility of his privacy, at a time when our intense networking and the establishment of facial profiling and information databases have made our privacy disappear.  By toying with the digital presence of Sony and the CIA, Anon has established the faceless mass as a player, however symbolic, in the power games between governments and corporations. By providing an open forum for dissidents in Iran and Tunisia, it has advocated for freedom of expression, but has been equally willing to silence its own opponents in petty disputes. Anon seems to be deeply fragmented and threatened by internal strife. Organizational chaos and bickering, fostered by the principle of anonymity itself, have done more to harm the group than any cybersecurity official could.

Anon, as an underground group in an overly regimented society, provides a platform for a new type of faceless activism, as well as an all-inclusive notion of identity: Anon is “everyone and no one.” As described on Encyclopedia Dramatica, one of the collective’s many portals: “Anonymous is not a person, nor is it a group, movement or cause.” It has respect for nothing but for a nebulous freedom that sometimes resembles licentiousness. The difference between the netizen and the citizen is that the state defines the citizen, whereas the netizen can free himself from those shackles and act online with very little fear of consequences – too little fear, perhaps, as evidenced by the dozens of arrests that have put an end to many a hacker’s immediate career.

The name Anon came from the group’s birthplace, /b/ – an imageboard on 4chan.net, where new posters are given the default handle “anonymous.” Anything can be posted within this platform and the page is updated at incredible speed, a sign of the many “lurking” users. Instant messaging is faster still, and it doesn’t leave an obvious record, making it Anon’s preferred platform for organization. Projects diffuse quasi-instantaneously; an idea is posted and either draws sufficient attention or is quickly buried. One rule: Anon is NYPA – Not Your Personal Army. Don’t look here to get back at your ex.

The army of the internet also uses decidedly barbarian tactics. Distributed denial of service attacks – where users simply flood a website until its connection fails – are “no computer science.” The necessary software is easily downloadable for anyone who knows where to look. Anon is basic, easy, and often construed as a safe way to break the rules, despite the fact that Anon users can indeed be traced and are only at times protected because of their huge numbers. Collective action is the modus operandi, and Anon’s success depends more on the quantity than the quality of their members. Who, then, directs this borderless mass of “no-bodies”?

Identifying leadership within the group is frustratingly difficult, if not impossible. A former member states bluntly, “There is no structure. I am not in the ‘core group,’ which I’m skeptical exists, so I can’t comment on this stuff…. I think anyone with a friend can be considered a core group.” Of course doubt remains – there is no way to know if this person is a member at all, or even to define the relevance of “membership” to Anon. The mask hides friends from foes, and even from other friends. No member can identify anyone beyond himself, an extreme version of the compartmentalization tactics resistance movements have learned to employ.

This lack of identity seems to forbid the emergence of an upper class. Instead the idea, not the leader, drives the action. Anon claims to be leaderless, and there is little indication that it is lying. The Business Insider quotes an Anon chat board: “Anonymous is a mindset not a group. Mindsets do not have leaders.” Conveniently, mindsets also cannot be arrested. Lulzsec – a short-lived Anon offshoot – quickly crumbled after Scotland Yard was able to identify three of its leaders.  Anyone who believes in Anon can be Anon. With this ever-changing workforce, one might as well prefer to seize water than grab ahold of Anon.

Anon resembles an archipelago of power, where any number of people who believe in a “project” or harbor the same grudge can organize action via imageboards and chat rooms without the need for a permanent leader. Those who agree will help, the others will not, and it does not matter whether some choose to abstain. The Anon philosophy requires participation in an underground culture that is not unanimous or even cohesive. Though this structure, or lack thereof, has undeniably helped Anon survive attacks from outside, it may very well lead to disintegration from within.

Indeed, this new system of freelance hacktivism is also the group’s Achilles’ heel. Anon contradicts itself often and its ideology can be so vague that it is impossible to grasp the limits of the collective. The lawlessness of Anon has created a meandering organization that constantly bears the risk of internal conflict and delegitimization. There is no way to prevent unreliable hackers from performing actions in the group’s name. Anonnews.org has, in many instances, condemned operations carried out under Anon’s own alias. Often it seems the right hand does not know or care what the left hand is doing. Whatever the case, the actions of both hands are attributed to Anon. The tyranny of the minority, in a sense, will not allow the group to form a consistent identity.

Many “members” have accused Anon of operating counter to its own goals. Anon’s releasing the private data of individuals who happen to have offended the group, make it seem puerile, and calls into question Anon’s commitment to personal security and privacy. A former member posted his discontent to a message board: “Because of your recent acts you’ve gone from liberators to terrorist dictators.”  The poster seems unaware that political rhetoric may not appeal to those who are “in it for the lulz”, and always have been.

Is it possible, then, to isolate the mindset that makes Anon a political movement? Could there be more efficient structures for hacktivism? Physical hackerspaces, such as the Berlin-based Chaos Computer Club (CCC), can be a place for “higher-minded hacking ideals: freedom of information, meritocracy of ideas, a joy of learning and anti-authoritarianism,” that nevertheless retains some cohesion and intelligence. Its members seek to reinstall transparency of government and individual privacy while remaining open themselves. They regularly meet and even attend conferences, and make decisions only after complete consensus. The group also seems to police itself internally, expelling members that could become a liability for the group. One member was forced to leave after becoming a public spokesperson for WikiLeaks. Though officially leaderless, CCC holds itself accountable, which may have helped the group survive for the last twenty years.

Even with its openness CCC’s ability to challenge established power is remarkable.  On October 13, CCC uncovered spyware in use by German state governments, which allowed authorities to monitor citizens by, among other methods, accessing personal microphones and webcams. The club also famously gained access to a German minister’s fingerprints and reprinted them on transparent film to fool fingerprint readers. The CCC serves as a model of elevated and even necessary hacktivism where anonymity is not essential.

Similarly, the emergence and rising popularity of so-called ‘pirate’ parties, which also contest the overwhelming power of the state and market in day-to-day society, have been a symbol of victory for a newly framed revolutionary mindset, similar in essence to Anon, but open, transparent and accountable. The nascent German Pirate Party, running on an internet civil rights platform, won 9 percent of votes in the 2011 Berlin State elections, showing the deep resonance the causes Anon claims to defend actually have among the electorate. Hacktivism’s ideology seems to be particularly widespread among young people, and if reassembled and targeted, it could constitute an incredible political power – in this case 10 percent of a major global city. Anon might be legion after all.

Might Anon get lost within the movement it helped create? It is certainly gaining supporters among the mainstream, but it is also reforming its mode of action. The Occupy Wall Street protests show that the Anon mentality spreads well beyond Anon itself and now trickles down from the web to the streets. Though AnonOps served as the platform from which to launch Occupy Wall Street, it has now dissolved into the static and confusion of the larger protest movement. The freelance mindset of the group might have influenced many, but the organization per se seems to have weakened. It is unclear whether Anon can survive in 3D.

We should take the Anon mindset for what can teach us: that post-9/11 emphasis on security coincided with new definitions of privacy. The appearance of facial profiling and other surveillance, along with the development of internet networking, has reduced our private sphere to our bathroom doors – perhaps forcing some to hide behind masks. This struggle to regain personal freedom hit a popular chord in the internet subculture that has leaked into the mainstream, even if it has not been a pressing demand during the recent series of protests. The network that emerged to combat this encroachment is capable of channeling other issues. There is a growing, if vaguely defined, concern among young people about the increasing power of centralized authority, be it corporations or governments, with authoritarian tendencies. But Anon’s counterproductive spasms, destroying the freedom and anonymity of its enemies, undermine its own platform.  The chaos of Anon has failed to gain coherence and is beginning to move in circles.

After serving as a springboard for street protests, can Anon combine its virtual and physical existence to serve its ideal and find the unity needed for the change it desires?  What keeps Anon alive today is the mask. With little chance of retribution or betrayal, the virtual Anon is firewalled from the outside. But within traditional street protest, the individual resurfaces – and with it all are accountable, and possibly threatened. Physical action also brings up the question of leadership for the legions. With no structure, Anon cannot survive in a world with faces, names and ID cards, where punishment is possible, and hearing out all voices is not. By looking at other hacker structures, defined physically and running on internal consent rather than constant rupture, Anon might be able to reform and evolve into a more powerful and intelligent hacktivist entity. Anon has always been, and continues to be, a mindset – one that will in all likelihood, outlive Anon itself.

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2 Comments

  1. Brilliant account Hélène!
    My question to you is, given the amorphous nature of Anon, how are we, and the contributors to Anon, assured of its complete independence? and how do we know that there is no infiltration of any sort such as a deus ex machina that might be orchestrating the whole anarchist coup without them realizing, facilitated by the convenient anonymous structure of the group?

  2. And how do we know that this whole group has not been put in place to conveniently and anonymously manipulate the population?

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