ANALYSIS: When Anonymous hackers grow up

Despite being a loose grouping, Anonymous is concerned about its actions, says Winston Ross

ANALYSIS: When Anonymous hackers grow up

AT THIS very moment, somewhere deep in the nether regions of the internet, a group of hackers aligned with the worldwide collective Anonymous is gathered in an encrypted chat room, hiding behind carefully designed firewalls, arguing about what to do next in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Some are restless. Some believe Anonymous has waited too long to expose the identities of the alleged rapists who reportedly bullied a 17-year-old girl into hanging herself earlier this month. Some believe it’s time to stir up more trouble.

There’s an administrator at the school which Rehteah Parsons attended who, some say, looked the other way as Parsons complained about people spreading photographs around the school of her rape. Word is there’s even an email floating around somewhere wherein the administrator refers to Parsons as “promiscuous”.

The more malicious members of “the hive” argue that we should dox him — meaning posting the administrator’s name, his image, maybe even his social security number, email address, home address, online. No, we should wait, says the other side. We said we’d give the Royal Canadian Mounted Police a chance to do its job.

They argue like that, over chat, on into the night. They agreed last Monday to put this conversation on hold, in the wake of the Boston bombings. By Tuesday, had enough time passed? Would there be room on the airwaves for the kind of publicity the hackers are looking for? Would it be the right kind of publicity? Would it make the difference they want?

Maybe they come to an agreement, to step aside or to strike. Maybe they agree on nothing, and the group splinters off, three hackers “doxing” and the rest abiding by the victim’s mother’s request: No vigilantism. No more bullying.

This is Anonymous in 2013: Engaged, passionate, rebellious, careful, reckless, tireless, unpredictable, and evolving. Unpredictable because they are splintered; evolving because they are human.

These hackers’ unpredictability and their evolution have made Anonymous a fascinating phenomenon to watch in recent years. The group that emerged from the murky waters of imageboard 4chan with a fixation on censorship in 2003 moved decidedly to hacktivism in 2008, targeting the Church of Scientology, and has since expanded and exploded into “ops” against extremist churches, governments deemed oppressive (including the US), those who would thwart the Arab Spring, Wall St, Mexican drug cartels, paedophiles, rapists, communities that protect rapists, and cops who fail to catch them.

“People are coming to us for help,” said one of the hackers in an interview. “Could you turn them away?”

It’s not just the broadening front that makes Anonymous fun to watch, though. It’s the way they do battle, talk to the world, absorb feedback, and adjust to it. Were this a vacillating political party with changing leadership and changing demographics, this transformation would be easier to track: Organisations must stay relevant, popular, approved at some level, to survive.

But Anonymous is hundreds if not thousands of people, spread out all over the world. How and what makes this amorphous movement step in this direction or that?

Consider this: In Steubenville, Ohio, two members of the town’s beloved football team, Big Red, were charged with rape last fall, after a photo surfaced of a girl being carried by her hands and feet from one room to the next at a party and a series of tweets and texts mocked that girl, describing the “rape crew” that took advantage of her.

Anonymous decided more players needed to be charged and so the hackers attacked. They broke into email accounts, stole passwords, and collected documents on everyone they believed should have done more.

The hackers claimed they found pornography in the emails of one football booster, even evidence that he somehow directed this “rape crew”, and they posted it, all of it, online. They threatened to do more, if other players weren’t brought to justice.

They’d expose every parent, every coach, every teacher at Steubenville High School. Many, especially the attorneys of the football players accused of rape, called the hackers “vigilantes”, with no respect for due process: Convicting people in a court of public opinion before the facts could be processed in a court of law.

Ohio attorney general Mike DeWine took particular umbrage with the release of a 12-minute video from Ohio State University student Michael Nodianos, drunkenly ranting disparaging things about the victim but admitting no crime and having no real connection to the case.

“It revictimised the victim,” said DeWine. “It didn’t change the case any, it got some publicity, but I’m not sure that’s the kind of publicity the victim wanted.”

But in the Parsons case? Despite being convinced they’ve identified two of the four alleged rapists who reportedly drove Rehteah to suicide, Anonymous has made only threats. Only if it became clear the Canadian authorities weren’t going to pursue charges in the case would the hackers step in. One member said he didn’t approve of how things went down in Steubenville, for some of the same reasons given by the officials who spoke out in the press.

“There was a guilty-until-proven-innocent feel to it,” he said. In Canada, in his op, “protecting other innocents was just as important in tracking down the actual rapists”.

Why the change of heart? The most obvious answer is partly true: The Halifax hackers are an entirely different crew from those who moved in on Steubenville, a different “cell”. There is no central leadership at Anonymous. It’s a brand to which anyone can attach themselves. One group of “Anons” could be pro-choice, another pro-life — at least hypothetically.

“We’ve used a measure of restraint uncommon to Anonymous activities,” said the hacker. “Not out of fear of being implicated criminally, but as a tactic to motivate media coverage and community outrage. No one should be under the impression we’ve been sedated, gotten lazy, or aren’t capable of resorting to extreme measures.”

Over time, though, say experts who have studied the collective, Anonymous has changed. It’s no more centralised but it’s still, somehow, far more concerned with public opinion and limiting collateral damage than ever. But why would a group of hackers who pride themselves on dissidence develop such a conscience? And how could this happen in a group with no leaders?

Chris Wysopal has a theory. He’s the co-founder of online security company Veracode, and has worked with and around hackers since the late 1990s, in groups such known as The L0pht and Cult of the Dead Cow.

In the early days, before hacktivism, hacking was just about power, about denial-of-service attacks on corporate or government or private websites just to prove it was possible. When the Dead Cow crew learned China was blocking its citizens’ internet access, though, they realised they could do more than just be disruptive. They could help, designing a software tool that would allow the Chinese to sneak past the government firewall.

Over time, that kind of hacking has caught on, partly because it’s more satisfying than just being a cyber-nuisance. One pivotal year was 2008, but another was 2011, Wysopal told The Daily Beast — the year dozens of hackers linked to Anonymous all over the globe were arrested, in part because they’d gone after big companies such as Sony, MasterCard, and Visa. But another thing that happened that year was that the hackers pissed off their own constituents by breaking into Sony’s PlayStation store, disabling users’ access to it and exposing usernames and passwords.

“Anonymous took a lot of criticism for that,” said Wysopal.

“I think that criticism was totally valid and well-received by a lot of people who are part of Anonymous. They were getting feedback, people saying ‘Hey, we have this power but the way we’re using it is harming more people than we’re helping’.”

Since then, Wysopal gets the impression that Anonymous members are more “self-policing”, even if that’s unofficial. “If you’re doing something and attaching it to Anonymous, and there are enough people who want to disavow it, they’ll disavow it, call you out.”

Conversely, its members seem to like positive feedback, said McGill University anthropologist Gabriella Coleman, who is writing a book on the collective and has spent countless hours in chat rooms talking to members over the past decade.

Even though the Steubenville effort drew fire, Anonymous was mostly seen as a force for good in Ohio, organising successful rallies there with Twitter and helping to fuel a broader discussion about rape culture in a case that might have otherwise remained focused on an isolated crime.

“I think they do care about the court of public opinion,” said Coleman. “And I think they generally do want to limit collateral damage. When it’s not limited, that’s when you have the most internal strife within Anonymous.”

This all represents a kind of puberty for the hacker collective, and it can be correspondingly awkward, says one of the members co-ordinating the Parsons operation. Many Anons enjoy their reputations as troublemakers, even if they’re ultimately believers in a “good cause”. Start handing hackers the keys to the city and they’ll retreat back into the shadows pretty quickly.

When Royal Canadian Mounted Police commissioner Bob Paulson announced last week that he was willing to “work with Anonymous” but only if they took “off the masks”, the hackers bristled. “What a load of shit,” one hacker told Newsweek. “So I guess they’re shutting down Crimestoppers, since they stopped taking Anonymous help?”

Further, whether it’s a noble cause or not, Anonymous’s key toolkit is hacking, which many people consider inherently nefarious. That makes it hard for people like Wysopal to imagine the collective losing its pariah stigma.

“To me there’s always going to be that aspect of vigilantism,” he said. “It’s something that’s core to the group. I don’t think it’ll ever totally be accepted, but I do think people over time are starting to see more and more value in it. It’s very beneficial to be able to operate outside of the legal system to gather information.”

- Winston Ross is a national correspondent for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, based in the Pacific northwest.

More in this section

War of Independence Podcast

A special four-part series hosted by Mick Clifford

Available on

Commemorating 100 years since the War of Independence