We are Legion: The Story of the Hactivists.
Brian Knoppenberger (2012)
We are Legion lays out the history of Anonymous, the leaderless global network of Internet activists who can shut down and/or hack the website of virtually any government or corporation. In June 2011, sixteen members of this anonymous network became publicly known after the FBI arrested them for attacking the websites of Paypal, Mastercard and Amazon for their refusal to process Wikileaks donations.
I was quite surprised to learn that the origins of Anonymous were totally apolitical. The hacker culture that led to the formation of Anonymous originally grew out of MIT prank culture. The MIT student body’s IRL (in-real-life) pranks preceded their online pranking. I visited the MIT campus for my daughter’s graduation, and the tour she gave me include a history of some of the more clever pranks, eg the Volkswagen MIT’s model railroad club put on the roof of the administration building.
Interest in online pranks and hacking led to the formation of online hacking groups, such as Cult of the Dead Cow, LOPHT and Electronic Disturbance Theater. It was in these groups hackers learned how to launch distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. The goal of a DDoS attack is to shut down a website by having tens of thousands of people link to it simultaneously.
Over time these early groups morphed into 4Chan, an image-based bulletin board where people used their anonymity to post the vilest and most disgusting images, comments and memes they could think of. The primary goal was to think up new ways of offending people. This included creative trolling and hacking of mainstream websites, often by plastering them with pornographic images.
4Chan Becomes Political
4Chan’s first political target was Hal Turner, a Neo-Nazi Internet radio producer. The techniques used against Turner included DDoS attacks, delivering hundreds of pizzas and industrial pallets to his home, signing him up for escort services, posting phony Craigslist ads in his name and hacking his email account.
By 2008, this weird international network of Internet pranksters numbered in the millions, and they took in their first major political target: the Church of Scientology. Their run-in with the Scientologists stemmed from a ludicrous promotional video Tom Cruise made for YouTube, which they posted to tens of thousands of websites. This, in turn, generated a barrage of threats from the Church’s legal team. The Scientologists have a long history of threatening journalists and educators who try to investigate their cult-like activities.
4Chan retaliated by tying up the Scientology hotline with prank calls and DDoS’ing their website. They also disseminated a simple, open source (free) computer game called Low Orbit Ion Canon which enabled each of their members to link to the Scientology website 800,000 times.
Anonymous is Born
On January 21, 2008, 4Chan activists launched their first video under the name of Anonymous. It called for mass protests at all worldwide Scientology offices. Protestors were instructed to bring no weapons and cover their faces to keep from being identified. The choice of the Guy Fawkes Mask (from the 2006 film V for Vendetta) was a lucky accident.
The protests started in Sydney, Adelaide, Perth and Melbourne. Eventually several hundred people turned out in every major city in the world. As it was the first time any of them had met offline, teen 4Chan nerds were astonished at the number of female and older activists in their midst.
Operation Avenge Assange
More online Anonymous protests followed, culminating in Operation Avenge Assange in December 2010. Following Wikileaks’ release of more than 100,000 secret US diplomatic cables, Paypal, Amazon and Mastercard tried to cripple them by suspending financial services to their website. Anonymous responded by DDoS’ing and shutting down the websites of Paypal, Amazon and Mastercard.
In February 2011, Anonymous provided assistance to Tunisian and Egyptian activists whose governments were trying to suppress their Internet access.
Following the Arab Spring protests, the formation of Lulz Sec caused a split in the Anonymous membership. Lulz Sec hactivists were into stealing credit card numbers and other personal information for malicious purposes. Other Anonymous members strongly believed their hactivism should only be a force for good.
In June 2011, 16 Anonymous members became visible for the first time when the FBI arrested them** for their role in Operation Avenge Assange. These and many nameless Anonymous members would go on to play a major role in the September 2011 Occupy protests.
*See Britain’s Famous Anarchist Superhero
**In 2014, the thirteen with outstanding charges pleaded guilty to misdemeanors and received maximum sentences of one year probation and $5600 restitution. See The Paypal 14
photo credit: Behind the Mask – Guy Fawkes 02 via photopin (license)