The problem with Anonymous

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.
We see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

It is a heartening example of our age (or a sad indictment, depending on your world view) that one of the most famous hacktivist collectives in the world takes its imagery from the graphic novel and eponymous film V for Vendetta. This should come as no surprise however. To the Internet activist masses, the novel’s hero V has become a powerful symbol of collective action against the establishment. V, who wears the Guy Fawkes mask made famous by the film, has become the symbol of Anonymous. In the novel, there is a vital point in the story where Evey, the protagonist, finds the hero V lying on the floor dying. V tells Evey that she must “discover whose face lies behind the mask. But you must never know my face”. After some thought, Evey realises that V is not the dead person lying on the floor with the mask still on, V is everyone who believes the ideas he espouses. This is treated in the film in a more cinematic (and dare I say, ham-fisted manner), when large parts of the population of London show up to watch the Parliament burn, dressed in Guy Fawkes masks.

Anonymous has taken this imagery as its own, what matters is not the individual behind the mask, it is the idea.”You can kill a man, but you cannot kill an idea” is the real motto behind this.

The ideal of anonymity espoused by the movement has its benefits, it has spawned a global phenomenon that has managed to strike fear in the hearts of system administrators everywhere, it has become the face of hackerdom for media outlets everywhere, and in general has caused some mischief with coordinated DDoS attacks on selected targets. Most recently, Anonymous become the online support arm of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

However, anonymity also has its setbacks. Who speaks for Anonymous? The problem with masks is that anyone can wear one, so making statements supposedly coming from Anonymous is rather easy. Just purchase your V for Vendetta Plastic Licensed Guy Fawkes Mask (licensed by Time Warner, oh the irony), find a way to distort your voice, make a video, and upload it to YouTube. Not having a centralised structure means that, at least in appearance, any Anonymous video out there is an “official” video. This has resulted in some high-profile threats getting a lot of media attention, even though they have later been decried as not representing Anonymous. Of particular note, the threat to shut-down Facebook today, or the supposed plan to release information against the prominent Zeta drug gang in Mexico. These episodes have made clear that not having a unified voice can have a serious diluting effect.

But Anonymous is not entirely anarchic. As many things in life, chaos finds a way to self-organise, and Anonymous has been building a structure based on loose meritocracy. There are semi-official Internet Relay Channels for chatting and organising operations. There are also semi-official websites, Twitter accounts and all sorts of ways to try to bring some sort of order to the movement. This does not stop anyone trying to talk on behalf of Anonymous, but it gives some semblance of order when the movement as a whole decries an op, as it happened with the Zetas. This, however, has also resulted in some rather strange manner of online macho posturing from wannabes and hangers-on in forums around the world, where people pretend to be Anons, or tell of their audience that they know a “high-up anon”. Such low-entry barriers have generated tension in the movement.

One of the biggest problems at the moment with Anonymous is that it seems like some of the LulzSec arrests have had a real effect on the type of operations undertaken. The emphasis on high-visibility attacks seems to be over, with much more effort going to the political engagement part of their ideals by helping the anti-capitalist movement that is OWS (or more accurately, anti-establishment).

In George R. R. Martin’s “A Dance with Dragons”, Queen Daenerys has a group of guards called the Brazen Beasts, freed slaves who wear bronze animal masks to hide their identity. The result is that anyone with a mask can claim to be a Brazen Beast, and a complicated system of passwords has to be established in order to make sure that any mask-wearer is a real guard. Anonymous is being undermined by its own ideals of anonymity, only time will tell if they manage to overcome the faults inherent in the system.

On the meantime, have a safe bonfire night.

ETA: A more troubling development with a branch of Anonymous is brewing online. An arm of Anonymous has collected and published a list of IP addresses supposedly involved in downloading child pornography. By subverting a TOR button release, the group OpDarknet has allegedly managed to obtain several IP addresses of people around the world who are connecting to a paedophile site. Vigilante justice never ends well, this is highly problematic.

ETA 2: Wired has published an interesting collection of videos of people describing Anonymous.

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