In 1995 the terrible (sometimes mis-referred to as “cult”) film Hackers was released. I won’t lower any IQs by describing the plot, but in general it revolved around the actions of a small group of computer-savvy teens who’s hacking skills foiled a giant corporation’s evil plans. At the time it was completely ridiculous, far fetched, and most would say it’s only redeeming quality was Angelina Jolie.
Interestingly, what seemed so far-fetched 17 years ago has become very nearly reality. Targeted attacks of corporations and government agencies. Stolen personal data, passwords, and emails. Crashed websites and leaked private communications. But, the people behind the hacks are not the photogenic Johnny Lee Miller or Ms. Jolie. In fact, they are completely faceless.
Say hello to Anonymous.
The Anonymous Movement
Anonymous is an independent online group of internet users who combine to affect internet attacks on predetermined targets. Their actions may range from simple DDoS attacks (flooding a site with traffic to crash the servers) to sophisticated hacks of secure online servers. There is no sign up process or initiation ceremony for membership – if you decide to participate in an action, you are essentially a member of the movement. Privacy and caution amongst members is drilled into all activists for protection against reprisals and investigation by authorities. There is no publicized leadership hierarchy, or public face of the organization – as their name states, the leaders, members, and supporters of the group remain anonymous.
Wikipedia does the best it can to document the history of Anonymous, but the actions of the group in 2003 do not really reflect its current state. While many of their initial public actions were described as “simply for the Lulz” (i.e., for the fun of it), today Anonymous focuses on fighting for free speech, and equality. Though they have no “mission statement” as such, they have said that one of their fore-bearers was Beatrice Hall, who said so famously “‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.
If you are over 40, it will be very hard to explain Anonymous group to you. I think Chris Landers of the Baltimore City Paper described them best when he said (as is quoted on Wikipedia):
[Anonymous is] the first Internet-based superconsciousness. Anonymous is a group, in the sense that a flock of birds is a group. How do you know they’re a group? Because they’re traveling in the same direction. At any given moment, more birds could join, leave, peel off in another direction entirely.
How do they decide who to attack? Only the inner circle knows. Who will they attack next? Rarely do we find out until after the attack has already happened. Whom do they target? Anyone who oppresses freedom and equality.
Beware Those who Cross Anonymous
Wikipedia has a great list of previous Anonymous targets which I suggest you check out, as I will only discuss a few here. In the past 24 hours, Anonymous has carried two major attacks, both designed to assault those who would attempt to impinge on freedom and promote inequality.
This operation was a sophisticated hack of major American and European White Supremacist groups’ websites. Personal addresses, phone numbers, and emails of members were published online, along with email communication between high-level members. In Anonymous’ press release after publication of all the info they cited the Neo-nazi’s hatred of minorities, rampant racism, and their “reluctance to accept the Freedom and Equality that every single human being possesses by right from birth” as the reasons for the attack.
Now, I’m sure most of my readers can get behind this kind of attack; who doesn’t want to see White Supremacists get screwed? But, I would bet many of my readers will find their second target slightly more controversial.
Salt Lake City Police Department
In late January members hacked into the “secure” databases of the Salt Lake City PD and came away with a trove of private data, including transcripts of complaints made by citizens against drug dealers (tips that were supposed to be kept highly guarded). This data was not released to the public, as the action’s purpose was not to gain information but to protest a controversial bill in the Utah senate that would make carrying spray paint cans a significantly more severe offence.
It’s easy to get behind the hack of a Neo-Nazi’s data, but the average citizen’s Crime Stoppers tips? I’m sure for most people that would be much more worrisome, and for many people it would cross the line from “vigilante justice” to “internet terrorism”. This is the duality of Anonymous – they help bring the internet back online for Egpytian protesters, but they also crash the FBI and Department of Justice websites as a protest against the SOPA & PIPA legislation.
But duality is the wrong word, because their purpose is singular – whatever side of the ocean you live on, wherever you fall in the political spectrum, if they think you are repressing freedom or equality, you will become a target.
Preparing Yourself for this New Era
There are many basic steps you can take to make hacking your private data more difficult:
- Utilize different passwords for every site and email you use
- Ensure every password is long, a mixture of numbers, letters, and punctuation
- Password protect all SQL databases, as well as your web server
However, even these steps will only slow down hackers, not stop them; so-called “rainbow tables” can crack your password lifted from a hacked server, poor security by your host can be your undoing, and there is really no realistic defence against DDoS attacks.
It paints a bleak picture, where vigilantes could turn up at your virtual door at any moment looking to mete justice from their keyboards. But I would suggest a simple piece of advice, one that might save your bacon later:
Do not underestimate Anonymous. They are not simply “pimply-faced teens”; they are organized, and they are powerful. If you should fall into their cross-hairs, the only thing I would suggest is attempting to start a civilized dialogue with them, in the hopes you can reach a mutual understanding. It may not be possible to prevent an attack, but listening to what they have to say and acknowledging their right to say it is certainly a good start.
The Anonymous Era
Good friends of mine would probably try to dissuade me from even mentioning Anonymous online; best not to get on their radar, even in a small way. I would hope that Anonymous would support my right to free speech, and my even-handed discussion of their movement. The purpose of this blog was not to cast judgement, but to educate people who cannot fathom what the group is about. But, perhaps all you need to know is their motto: