Anonymous, beyond the mask
What is Anonymous? Who’s behind this global movement of hackers? How do they operate? Gabriela Coleman visited the Frontline Club on Thursday 30 October to answer this and many other questions.
Ben Hammersley, presenter of the BBC World News series Cybercrime with Ben Hammersley, spoke with her during the conversation named after Coleman’s last book: Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. Coleman, a cultural anthropologist and researcher on computer hackers and digital activism, tried to track down the origin of the Internet-based movement: “The roots of Anonymous are in this sort of offensive, sometimes gruesome, sometimes terrifying, sometimes funny world of the Internet trolling”. According to the author, the Internet-based movement shifted into political activism in 2008, when they targeted The Church of Scientology and leaked a video of Tom Cruise. It happened because this is a religion of science and technology – “the worst nightmare of an Anonymous activist”, in her own words. The hackers of Anonymous were getting more and more politically involved. They supported Wikileaks in 2010 after PayPal froze its account during the ‘Cablegate’ scandal. However, in the Arab Spring they gained even more influence backing the popular uprisings in the North of Africa. “There was a small, scrappy geek crowd in Tunisia and a number of them went online and said hey, Anonymous, why don't you help us out”, Coleman said. That is how Anonymous began spreading protests videos and targeting the Tunisian government. Hammersley suggested that was the moment when authorities around the world started to seriously worry about the power of Anonymous. The researcher agreed and added that actually unpredictability is one of its best ways to defy governments and big corporations. “Why Anonymous goes one place versus another? Often has to do with an opportunity that arises”, she explained. Nowadays, due to the increasing restrictions and tougher regulations in the US and Europe, hackers’ activity is moving to other parts of the world. The author of Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking points at one place in particular: “The Latin American hackers are on fire: Brazil, Peru…”. The identity of Anonymous The organisation has succeeded in remaining true to the spirit of anonymity. Plus they are still united and act with a one voice. To Coleman that is a great accomplishment, especially within the cult-to-celebrity society we live in today. Three reasons appointed the anthropologist as an explanation: they do not have a lot of symbols, there is a great sense of involvement and no singularity. “They are more like a hydra, with many different heads, in competition with each other”. Regarding the plurality of Anonymous, Coleman highlighted the variety of its members. Not all of them are white, young westerners, hacking from their parent’s basement. Among the persons she has met are an ex-military man or an Iraq-born British teenager. Women are also part of it, but “when it comes to transgressive hacking, infiltrating servers, I actually do not know of a single female in or outside Anonymous”. Hammersley asked her to point out the advantages for society of having such a unique group as Anonymous is. She believes its members have created and help to create a grass root space of debate and transgression, but with certain mechanisms of self-control. “We are on the dawn of hacking politics and the golden times are still to come”, Coleman predicted.