Is it a Crime? The Transgressive Politics of Hacking in Anonymous

Ain’t no such thing as halfway crooks…”
-Mobb Deep, “Shook Ones,” Infamous
Mobb Deep

there are so many different anonymous networks with different terms of use so i keep mixing them up”
-Anonymous on Anonymous (#anonops) September 25, 2011

Joseph Menn’s September 24, 2011 Financial Times article, “They’re watching. And they can bring you down,” covers a dynamic that has received scant attention in the mainstream news: tensions within political entity referred to as Anonymous (Anon, for short). Regrettably, Menn does not bother with any discussion of Anon’s internal dynamics and his analysis on the hackers involved in Anonymous lacks any sustained engagement with the collective’s history. Menn’s treatment of Anonymous thus makes it impossible to appreciate the tensions that define Anonymous, where dissent is even more prevalent–if less sinister–than it appears in his FT article.

In what follows, we discuss some of our primary concerns with Menn’s FT piece, since we believe more critical engagement with the issues he raises is likely to yield important lessons for scholarly and journalistic approaches to digital media, protest politics, and cyber-security. Instead of merely depicting hackers as virtual pamphleteers for free speech or as digital outlaws, we need to start asking more specific questions about why and when hackers embrace particular attitudes toward different kinds of laws, explore in greater detail what they are hoping to achieve, and take greater care in examining the consequences.

In Menn’s assessment, Anonymous is characterized as a political entity that arose from 4chan, seen by many as one of the Internet’s seediest quarters. Then, the story goes, this group transmuted through a series of acts: from protesting the Church of Scientology, to showing support for Wikileaks, to assisting in uprisings across Africa and southwest Asia (elsewhere termed “Arab spring”). In January 2011, amidst an intense period of growth and transformation, Menn alleges, a bunch of criminal hackers showed up, overran and manipulated the network and have since royally messed everything up.

This story line is more wrong than right. Anonymous did, as the article claims, become political in more discernible ways when participants with various backgrounds and technical skills began trolling the Church of Scientology. The Anti-Scientology network–often referred to as Chanology or Anonnet (the name of their IRC server)–first organized a protest movement on Internet Relay Chat, in web forums, and eventually in cities across North America, Europe, and Australia in February 2008. In September 2010 a totally distinct node, now called AnonOps, appeared under the name Anonymous. AnonOps was likewise born from 4chan, in this case to protest an act of digital privateering, in which the Motion Picture Association of America had hired an Indian firm to accost the file sharing site Pirate Bay through a Distributed of Denial of Service (DDoS) attack. Anonymous consequently countered with an elaborate DDoS attack of its own. These events helped lay the foundation for a new network that would eventually be housed on a different Internet Relay Chat server than the one where the other Anons continued to congregate in protest against the Church of Scientology.

Not surprisingly, frictions between these two networks soon emerged. Few of the Anons in Anonnet were fans of the massive DDoSing that was at first, but no longer is, the main weapon of the AnonOps network. Some, if not all, in the AnonOps network, think that the Anonnet network is too small to be effective. Despite differences between these two networks–and there is some crossover in participants–they command some degree of mutual respect because people in either domain are committed to a shared
ideal: that Anonymous is a name people can use to organize in distinct and divergent styles. Even if Anons bitch endlessly about
actions carried out under the name of Anonymous, they tend to respect the fact that part of their ethical ideal means anyone can assume the moniker.

The AnonOps network grew exponentially in December 2010 when system administrators, hackers, activists, and many more people, too numerous to fully disaggregate and classify, joined the pre-existing group of operators and activists (who had originally formed in September 2010) to pound and disable the PayPal and MasterCard servers. These corporate pay portals became an Anon target after it appeared they had bowed to governmental pressure to stop accepting donations for the legal fees of Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, then suddenly (in)famous for publishing and providing unrestricted access to scores of diplomatic cables. Thousands joined Anons’ preferred mode of communication, Internet Relay Chat (with plenty of bots to make it seem even more crowded), such that one Anon characterized the moment with a state of wonderment, “we were stunned and a little frightened tbh.”

One of the merits of Menn’s FT article is that it raises key questions about the ethics of DDoSing when conducted so openly and, at times, with little foresight. Many who jumped online were unaware of the legal risks they had undertaken. Yet even more significantly, this incident exposed an abiding tension between those with technical proficiency (aka the hackers/operators) and those with less technical expertise, as well as between those who had been part of the network since September 2010 and those who came aboard for the first time in December 2010.

To grapple with this existing tension, Menn tells the story of a technical guardian attempting to manipulate someone into using the LOIC software, which can be used by individuals to contribute to DDoSing campaigns but which can also leave the operator vulnerable to authorities. This problematic practice is worthy of critique. Yet it can by no means be taken as representative of the entire network. For, during the same initiatives, many technical experts provided a great deal of assistance to newcomers, showing them crucial strategies and protocols for defending themselves. Eventually an #opnewblood channel was even created on the Anopnops IRC network to provide mentorship about security. Thus contrary to the impression one gets from reading Menn’s article, Anon is not marked by a singular logic. As one prominent Anon put it, in response to some of the hacking operations, “Anonymous is not Unanimous.”

Nor is Anonymous defined by utter randomness. We can, in fact, track and examine the rise and fall of trends, tensions in and between networks, frictions between those with technical power and those without, and contradictions in the particular strategies for social and political engagement participants routinely deployed and discontinued. That Menn fails to do so is especially troubling since the specific form of hacking that his investigative piece discusses in greatest detail–hacking-as-leaking–only became integral to the tactical political culture of the AnoOps network in late winter/early spring 2012, and even then only because of a particular set of events that
had transpired on the AnonOps network.

First it is key to note that some of the key hackers (central to Lulzsec, an offshoot of Anonymous and the Antisec operation which came into being after Luzlsec disbanded) had already been involved in AnonOps prior to the so-called popular period and were actively participating in Anonymous. Other hackers came later and never gave a damn about the wider Anonymous network. Some came from a transgressive black hat hacking tradition, with its own complicated history and politics and some of these had been part of an earlier, though quite different, Antisec movement, quite critical of the security industry. Although hacking was always in some form part of the AnonOps network–and much of AnonOps has nothing to do with hacking or hackers–the hacking-for-leaking phase really only took off after the HBGary Federal hack.

This celebrated hack–directed against Aaron Barr, former CEO of the technology security company, HBGary Federal–is significant for the massive media attention it managed to attract, combined with damning details in Barr’s emails–nearly impossible to get through legal channels– is what likely inspired the hackers to continue their quest. Prior to this event, this form of hacking was uncommon to the network, though other styles of hacking such as web defacing, were indeed commonly deployed. This event, in other words, inaugurated a new, especially transgressive hacking chapter in AnonOp’s history.

What happened to spur this event?

In a February 4, 2011 Financial Times article, “Cyberactivists warned of arrest,” the very same Joseph Menn quoted Barr as claiming he had infiltrated Anonymous and was soon to hand over to the FBI a list of the identities of their core participants. Once word got out about his intended plans, a small number of hackers organized a swift and brutal response under the banner of Anonymous. In the course of the trolling and doxing, an enormous amount of detail uncovered in the emails centered on the way HBGary Federal and its affiliates proposed to act as agent provocateurs: hired thugs for the purposes of disruption. Some of the leaked emails included a Power Point presentation outlining how HBGary Federal and other companies could help discredit WikiLeaks by submitting fake documents to the site which, when revealed as false, would presumably discredit the organization. They also devised plans to undermine the careers of various figures seen as ideological supporters of WikiLeaks, such as Glenn Greenwald, a writer for The inner workings of a privatized COINTELPRO-type proposal were exposed for the world to see; these details were so shocking, some Congressmen even called for an investigative committee to look into these actions. Between the considerable media attention and the damning information, these hackers were inspired–for better or worse–to carry forth with an extended spate of hacking activity first under a distinct group called Lulzsec before returning to Anonymous with Operation Antisec.

Attending to these issues with greater appreciation for historical dynamics than Menn displays neither lionizes nor demonizes hackers yet instead permits us to trace concrete practices and their consequences, yielding greater clarity on the intricacies of hacking-as-leaking in contrast to leaks that have received more attention from scholars and pundits, like Wikileaks. Hacks-as-leaks as conducted by these Anons have produced collateral damage and also leave those who initiate them vulnerable to criminal charges for any number of statutes designed to police and secure digital architectures.

These hacks may also, as Menn notes, have unintended and far reaching consequences for all of us. As Menn notes, “Even some supporters worry that if the group continues on its current path, it could trigger a legislative backlash that would bring heightened monitoring at the expense of the privacy that Anonymous prizes.” Still, it is crucial that we consider the broader historical perspective. This sort of “legislative backlash” has been in the works at least since 2001, with the Patriot Act, spurred by the terrorist attacks against the Twin Towers. And since that time, there have been many attempts to legislate acts that curtail privacy in the stipulated attempt to make the nation more secure. These legal developments have clearly not simply been instituted in the last year in response to hacks. No doubt, the hacking actions of Anonymous can be used to move legislative proposals into law more rapidly, but portrayals of nefarious hacker criminals also inflames fears about privacy that are long on emotion and short on substance.

Anon hackers are “criminals” in so far as any hacker has inevitably broken a host of laws; some individuals involved may also have a criminal history. And yet most hackers either implicitly or explicitly have critiques of the laws they are willing to transgress. Thus, the analyst must provide some account of the way that a given law can be conceived as either fulfilling or failing to fulfill the dual investment in freedom and security that defines life in the US polity at any given juncture and why hackers seek to trouble this distinction.

To make matters even more complicated, the work of some of the hackers in Anonymous includes modes of duplicity that some Anons self-consciously deploy; in transgressive hacker circles, these tactics include social engineering: the practice of duping humans for the purposes of gaining information or for spreading misinformation. Used by some Anons, to various degrees, offensively and defensively, these forms of subterfuge raise a host of important questions about how to research, represent, and grapple with the significance of the politics of hacking, especially where a clandestine hacking operation within Anonymous is concerned. The politics of duplicity do not merely make reporting and research tricky, tiresome, and frustratingly difficult but, in fact, mirror a much broader political predicament. That researchers find it difficult to trust what Anons tell reporters, ethnographers, fans and followers, mimics the relative alienation of residents and citizens that Danielle Allen, a political scientist with the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, has called, “political distrust.” That is, democracy relies on the principle that people can place their lives in the hands of “strangers” and still anticipate a just outcome. Not simply hackers but researchers should be expected to abide by this ethical principle if indeed a democratic polity is what we seek.

The active politics of hacking-for-leaking that ensued in AnonOps after the first dramatic hack-as-leak (Op HBGary) produced important ripples and transformations in the AnonOps network. Many non-hackers cheered them on, especially at first; others shunned them, still others see them as having value in their infrequency and utter indeterminacy. Some wish the hackers would continue to do leaks so but stick to high impact political hacks (against the defense industry, for instance) and do away with the collateral damage, such as leaking personal information, that some Anon-led leaks have produced.

It’s also the case, as Menn suggests,that the hacking-as-leaking phase slowed down in July 2011 after a series of arrests, after which point some hackers went dark. But contrary to Menn’s account of these events, Anonymous has carried forth actively and, in keeping with tradition, through diverse outlets and channels. Some continued to hack for leaks, though at a slower pace; one of the most visible of these hackers, Sabu–who, as Menn notes quickly vanished from Twitter in the aftermath of the arrests–returned days before the publication of Menn’s own article and returned in full force on September 17, 2011, the inaugural day of the “Take Back Wall Street” campaign (Anons hackers from Antisec and non-hacker Anons visibly contributing to these efforts). Perhaps most notably, Anons also organized a highly visible event in the Bay Area (Operation Bart) in August 2011, which received no mention in Menn’s account, although at the time these events were covered extensively in mainstream national news outlets, such as CNN, local news venues all over the Bay Area, and progressive new shows, notably Democracy Now.

What the future holds for Anonymous is, of course, impossible to predict. Yet far from being reducible to a rag-tag crew of cyber-criminals, Anonymous continues to expand its reach, and draw considerable attention from foes and supporters alike. In grappling with these dynamics, we must entertain very difficult questions about the diverse political forms and interventions they have helped dramatically stage and propagate.

Whether these will be viewed as radical in the progressive or fundamentalist sense of the term remains to be seen, as is the extent to which Anons can ever be said to share a perspective on any particular issue. We’ve heard it said that “to be radical is to get to the root of the problem.” And, Anonymous takes us to the heart of what it means to be an individual yet part of a collective; to reconfigure, camouflage, or misrepresent the most intimate index of all, one’s identity. To play at the boundaries of, transgress and even question the law. This is the promise and peril of Anonymous.


Michael Ralph and Gabriella Coleman are professors at New York University and are collaborating on an article on the role of dissent and direct action within Anonymous and in the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprisings across Africa and southwest Asia. They seek to bring anthropological knowledge and perspectives to bear on public discussion and debates.

Michael Ralph

Biella Coleman