Threat Levelby Quinn Norton, wired.com
December 30th 2011
(Editor’s Note: Any decent coverage of Anonymous is going to verge on some NSFW material at points. There will be questionable language and strange imagery.)
Part Two of a Three-Part Series Examining the History of Anonymous. Part One.
In the beginning, there were lulz, pranks and a culture of trolling just to get a rise out of anyone. But despite many original Anons best efforts, Anonymous has grown up to become the net’s immune system, striking back whenever the hive mind perceived that the institutions that run the world crossed the line into hypocrisy.The fall and winter of 2010 started a pattern that persists; when the use of power gets suspect, people join Anonymous. But this immune response changed Anonymous as well. The lulz had to make room for righteous indignation, and not even a pretend indignation.
The voice of the hive mind, though still computer-generated, had changed its tone.
At the close of 2011, Anonymous Antisec members spent their holidays hacking companies connected to the federal government and exposing internal data as part of their Lulzxmas campaign. Antisec, who have emerged as the blackhat shock troops of Anonymous, going after police organizations and corporations such as Monsanto and Sony, represent a new, more forceful voice in internet politics.
It’s the culmination of a trend. Anonymous has gone from rickrolling the internet and mass-producing lolcats to hacking governments and corporations as a way to take on the systems that run the world, through means legal and illegal.
One participant in the collective, who joined in late 2010, didn’t have the lulz in mind at all.
“I felt that Anonymous was the best place for those who hated censorship of information … voicing my grievances to the government and to the world without having to deal with reprisals from either my employer or government,” he said. “And when WikiLeaks was censored, via extrajudicial financial blockades, and through general tyranny by the U.S. government, I decided it was time to call them out on their bullshit.”
But how did a group built around laughing at everything end up becoming such Serious Business?
When we left off our deep look at Anonymous: Beyond the Mask with our part I, Anonymous 101: Introduction to the Lulz, it was the beginning of 2008. Anonymous had for the first time stepped off the internet to begin its siege of the Church of Scientology. They called their raids the “Raep,” a misspelling of rape. They nicknamed the church the “Buttchurch” and started a seemingly inexhaustible campaign against them.
Dubbed Project Chanology, the attack on the church used a bewilderingly wide set of protest and disruption techniques, no matter how stupid, gorgeous, gross or elegant. The op became the anons’ political and practical training ground.
The continual “raeping” of the Church of Scientology started out with the normal fare of Anonymous raids: making creepy phone calls, phoning in fake pizza deliveries, sending threatening e-mails, faxing black pages of paper to waste toner, overloading servers and so on. Classic online troll fare.
But the raids evolved.
Anti-Scientology activist Mark Bunker spoke directly to Anonymous, exhorting them to change their tactics to be more legal. Anonymous took a liking to him — he became known to them as Wise Beard Man; “his words are wise, his face is beard.” Partly in response, Anonymous adjusted their tactics to embrace more traditional and legal means, and for the first time Anonymous started looking like a protest movement. Project Chanology became a practical education in political action and online coordination.
Anons started WhyWeProtest.net, a social network and forum site designed to let people talk anonymously about demonstrating against Scientology. Some, like Gregg Housh of Boston, even got to know the local police, and learned how to get permits for marches. But others stayed on the other side of the legal edge, continuing with harassment tactics and DDOS attacks against church servers.
The most extreme of the protests may have been Operation Slickpubes, where an 18-year-old anon named Mahoud Samed Almahadin, AKA Matt Connor, coated himself in Vaseline, nail clippings, and pubic hair, and ran into the New York Scientology location and proceeded to rub himself against anything and everything, even at one point humping a stack of boxes.
But Slickpubes was not a completely straightforward op. The point was two-fold: harass the Church, but, perhaps more importantly, critique what many “oldfags” (the anons that had been on 4chan since the olden days of lulzy raids for raids’ sake) saw as a corruption of the purity of their lulzy motherfuckery. It was meant to remind anons that Anonymous wasn’t about moral crusading (referred to as “moralfaggotry”), it was about pranking.
They were supposed to be taking down the church for the lulz, and righteous vigilantism was just meant to be part of the joke.
Slickpubes ultimately failed. Anonymous wasn’t doing it just for the lulz any more.
The empowerment anons felt from vigilantism had swung the movement to moralfaggotry permanently, and many anons liked it that way.
“Scientology tried to fuck with our internet, attempting to shut down the Cruise video. It was punished, hard, and continues to be punished nearly four years later,” said an anon on whyweprotest.net in response to a question posed by Wired. “Anonymous was born out of a need to exact retribution…. The targets may have broadened but the essential message is the same.”
Eventually Almahadin was sentenced to community service, and agreed to stay away from Church of Scientology locations for five years. In the meantime, anons were getting arrested from the online attacks on the church’s servers, and some were sentenced to time in jail. But protests continued, and became part of normal life for both the Chanology anons and many Church of Scientology locations.
The Low Orbit Ion Cannon, a ridiculously named network load testing tool, entered Anonymous’ collective arsenal in the DDOSing of Scientology websites, but it soon would become the most famous and controversial of the tools of Anonymous.
The hive-mind capable version of the Low Orbit Ion Canon
LOIC was made to put load on servers, much as a programmer would do to make sure a website could keep functioning if a lot of web users came by simultaneously. But LOIC was also specifically made with the denizens of 4chan in mind.
A single instance of LOIC just sends meaningless UDP and TCP traffic to a target server, which on its own doesn’t do much. But when enough people download LOIC and point it at the same target, you have created the human equivalent of a black-hat hacker’s botnet, and together the action can take down a server with the sheer number of requests. It’s as if a site got too popular, except everyone using the LOIC actually hates the site.
In the beginning of 2008 LOIC started to get used against Scientology web servers, but the tool was rudimentary, with no way to automate targeting, what’s called “command and control” in the blackhat world of botnets that are comprised of tens of thousands of zombie computer that check in with a central source to get commands to send spam and attack websites. Instead, Anonymous’ setup page for LOIC simply listed Church server IP addresses and invited anons to copy and paste the addresses and hammer away.
The Low Orbit Ion Canon was created by a Norwegian hacker and 4chan regular known as Praetox. Praetox, him or herself, seemed to vanish in 2009, but Praetox’s site remained up, and LOIC and its source code downloadable.
Later versions added a way to automate targeting; anons running the LOIC could point it at an IRC channel and the admins could direct and fire the LOIC by issuing commands in the channel’s topic header.
While anyone could download the LOIC and point it at anything they wanted, or put it into a slave mode and let it be fired from the consensus of an anonops irc channel, there was a big problem.
The LOIC didn’t hide itself or the attacker’s IP address, meaning that attackers were logged by servers they attacked, and could be found and prosecuted if the attacked site handed the server logs to authorities. Anons were cavalier about this danger, saying there were too many of them to get them all, which was true, but that still sucked for the few that would eventually face legal consequences.
Many naive Anons never understood that they were doing something illegal and traceable, and many of the more knowledgeable kept mum on the dangers, or in some cases, outright lied about the safety of the tool.
The LOIC, with its funny name and cannon iconography, had its breakthrough moment with a new target in September of 2010.
In early September, an Indian company called AiPlex claimed that it was contracted to send out take down requests to piracy sites, and controversially DDOS those that didn’t respond such as the infamous BitTorrent tracker site The Pirate Bay that takes pride in rejecting takedown requests. The story morphed into legend that , AiPlex being hired to perform illegal actions against sites it blasted for illegal activities by the Motion Picture Association of America, instead of the Hollywood/Bollywood joint, Alliance Against Copyright Theft (AACT) .
Anons collectively howled. They believed Hollywood studios weren’t only writing copyright laws that hampered online freedoms (making it illegal, for instance, to tinker with phones and game consoles) — they were even employing blackhat techniques that anons had gone to jail for, with no fear of punishment.
For years those who cared about the effects of copyright laws on online freedom seemed to suffer one institutional defeat after another, with bill after bill pushed by the entertainment industry carving away rights, lawsuits shuttering innovative music start-ups and secret treaties proposing increased monitoring and control of people’s computers and internet connections.
Most of these bills failed, but for the digitally political, Big Content’s pushes felt like a continual assault.
Anonymous had no unified opinion on copyright per se, but when measures to stop piracy threatened to hamper the internet, the hive mind came together. An announcement against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which proposed a three-strikes-you-are-off-the-net approach to copyright infringement, put it thusly:
Our chief complaint is that such measures would restrict people’s access to the internet… To threaten to cut people off from the global consciousness as you have is criminal and abhorrent. To move to censor content on the internet based on your own prejudice is at best laughably impossible, at worst, morally reprehensible.
The video’s computer generated voice, by this point a deep part of the Anonymous aesthetic, ended with a riff on the traditional Anonymous sign-off that not only summed up their motivations, and would be predictive of where their attention would in the future.
“We do not forgive internet censorship. And we do not forget free speech,” it intoned.
From 4chan and IRC anons coordinated a new kind of attack; a direct retaliation against a major political player. They loaded up the LOIC and sent out the call to take down the websites of AiPlex and the MPAA:
September 19, 2010
To whom it may concern
This is to inform you that we, Anonymous, are organizing an Operation called “Payback is a bitch”.
Anonymous will be attacking the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America), the MPAA (Motion Pictures Association of America), and their hired gun AIPLEX for attacks against the popular torrent and file sharing site, the Piratebay (sic) (www.thepiratebay.org).
We will prevent users to access said enemy sites and we will keep them down for as long as we can.
But why, you ask?
Anonymous is tired of corporate interests controlling the internet and silencing the people’s rights to spread information, but more importantly, the right to SHARE with one another.
The RIAA and the MPAA feign to aid the artists and their cause; yet they do no such thing. In their eyes is not hope, only dollar signs. Anonymous will not stand this any longer.
We wish you the best of luck.
We are legion.
The response was tremendous; thousands of people who had never considered themselves Anonymous, or perhaps even knew much about the collective, joined in and became a new generation of moralfag. Though they didn’t care about the Church of Scientology or 4chan’s history of shenanigans, they shared one important quality with their raiding 4chan predecessors.
They saw acting as Anonymous, taking up the iconography, and joining the op, as a path to empowerment. They could finally do something more than sign an online petition and give money to the EFF.
They took down AiPlex immediately, and the MPAA shortly after, and expanded the attack to the RIAA and rightsholders and enforcement groups around the world. They wrote manifestos and released videos, but more than anything, they got a lot of media coverage. The coverage brought in more people.
Anonymous swelled to a crowd of moralfags that likely dwarfed whatever had been in the “legion” before. As the media conversation continued, Anonymous bounced around different sites, targeting different characters in the controversy over copyright, and retaliating over negative commentary. Attacks expanded to some traditional hacking techniques like SQL injection and website defacement.
After weeks of rampage, Op Payback looked to be dying down. November was mostly quiet, with new participants of Anonymous settling in, getting used to IRC and starting anonymous-centric Twitter accounts.
Operation Avenge Assange
Just when it looked like Anonymous would take a breather in December 2010, the government started an extra-legal crackdown on WikiLeaks in response to the release of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables allegedly leaked to the site by Bradley Manning. Senator Joe Lieberman called Amazon to pressure them, successfully, to stop hosting WikiLeaks files, despite no charges being filed against WikiLeaks or its public face, Julian Assange. Mastercard, Visa, and Paypal all blocked payments to WikiLeaks for alleged terms of service violations and Assange’s Swiss bank froze his account. Payback sparked to life again, this time as Op Avenge Assange.
Anonymous powered up the LOIC, and with channels brimming with even more participants than even Payback had seen, they took down the websites of MasterCard, and Visa (which made for good publicity, even though it didn’t touch the payment networks and hardly anyone who has a card issued by those companies has ever visited their websites). The attack also slowed Paypal for a short time in an attack that actually targeted the company’s payment processing system. An attack against Amazon was quickly aborted when Anons decided their tools weren’t likely to work against the company’s massive and resilient server architecture.
But Anonymous was back in the news. At a moment when it seemed the whole world was turning on WikiLeaks, Anonymous came in like the cavalry, shameless in its support of the controversial site and offering a voice to what turned out to be people online around the world that resented the persecution of the leaking site.
With the attacks on both rightsholder companies and those who abandoned WikiLeaks on the flimsiest of pretenses, Anonymous was reacting to heavy-handed actions where institutions were exceeding their mandate. Visa and MasterCard would let you make donations to Neo-Nazis, but not WikiLeaks, and it was clear that power was conspiring behind the scenes. And the hive mind, with a newfound morality, wasn’t content anymore to just complain in the comment section.
Anonymous fundamentally produces two things: spectacle and infrastructure hacking. They create scenes the media often can’t resist, but they also tend to be ones that the media isn’t very good at understanding. The rest of the time they create or destroy online infrastructure, much of which never directly gets noticed. Op Payback & Assange combined the two, but were mainly spectacle. None of the attacks disrupted the function of the targeted entities for long, if at all, but that was missed by much of the media, who instead confused people into believing that they wouldn’t be able to use their Visa or MasterCards to buy gas or groceries, thanks to Anonymous.
Capitalizing, Anonymous made bold proclamations of victory, which made their way into an uncritical media narrative, and continued the snowball through December.
Some anons did notice that they hadn’t really damaged the people they’d attacked, and that despite their numbers, they couldn’t. They started Op Leakspin, which called for participants of Anonymous to read, analyze, disseminate and protect the dissemination of the diplomatic cables that had caused so much trouble. Like WikiLeaks’ original intent to have citizens analyzing leaked documents as a sort-of crowd-sourced CIA, Leakspin didn’t seem to go very far.
The new moralfags far preferred hitting targets with LOIC to becoming reference librarians. But they did live up to a commitment to keep the cables available all over the world by mirroring them on servers, even as different governments sought to censor the often embarrassing American diplomatic discussions. And they kept track of where they were being censored.
Then, on December 17th, 2010, a poor Tunisian produce vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi who lived in the rural town of Sidi Bouzid set himself on fire to protest a crushing corruption he couldn’t live with anymore. It was a desperate act, and he couldn’t have imagined how much it would matter. But nothing would be the same again; not the Middle East, the internet, or even American society would emerge from Bouazizi’s self-immolation unchanged.
And that very un-anonymous act of protest would change Anonymous as well.
Next: Part III, The freedom ops, HBGary Federal, and Ocuppy Wall Street in 2011, the year Anonymous reached over 9,000.
This post is part of a special series from Quinn Norton, who is embedding with Occupy protestors and going beyond the headlines with Anonymous for Wired.com. For an introduction to the series, read Quinn’s description of the project.
Photos/Art: Anonymous/Flickr, Anonymous.
Original Page: http://contextly.com/redirect/?id=tqzMMOenIW
Shared from Read It Later
Still missing the point.