The Internet hacker collective known as Anonymous may be on a political collision course with the #Occupy movement that it helped launch.
The anarchist, anti-authoritarian nature of Anonymous could soon place it at odds with the #OccupyWallStreet protestors, many of whom pine for a “pure” democracy in which a consensus (not a majority) defines the rules.
That clash becomes more likely as #OccupyWallStreet begins taking marching orders (literally) from Big Labor, the Democratic Party, and the institutional left.
Recently, for example, a faction of Anonymous recently told MoveOn.org to “f#@ off” (language warning):
To understand the dynamic between Anonymous and #Occupy, it is necessary to examine the history of both.
On August 23rd, AdBusters, one of the primary instigators of #OccupyWallStreet, released an announcement that Anonymous would be joining the movement.
It read, in part:
Jammers, dreamers, patriots,
Anonymous has just released a video communique endorsing #OCCUPYWALLSTREET. Using language from our first Tactical Briefing, the video calls on protesters to adopt the nonviolent Tahrir-acampadas model. On the 17th of September [S17], it says, “flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months … Once there, we shall incessantly repeat one simple demand in a plurality of voices.”
For the uninitiated: Anonymous is a loosely affiliated, decentralized group of individuals that was born in large part from the popular imageboard website 4chan.
If you’ve ever spent much time in the 4chan community, you know that many of today’s most beloved Internet memes originated there.
Anonymous is probably most popularly known for its very public attack on the Church of Scientology (Project Chanology) in 2008, when a group of individuals claiming to be Anonymous carried out a series of protests and Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks after a leaked video from the church was removed from YouTube over copyright infringement – an act that Anonymous deemed to be Internet censorship.
Over the last decade or so, the collective of individuals in Anonymous has matured from that of “lulz“-seekers” to a powerful force for civil disobedience and activism–supposedly in the name of Internet freedom and free speech.
In 2009, in the wake of violence that erupted after the Iranian elections, Anonymous gained notoriety when it assisted Iranian activists in getting their messages beyond the electronic firewall of Iran’s oppressive regime.
That momentum helped to fuel other hacktivism efforts in countries like Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt, drawing both praise and criticism from varying sides of the political spectrum.
As with any growing movement, Anonymous has not been without its problems. Over time, it has attracted individuals with differing goals in mind, and appears to have splintered off into many factions. Some of these engage in what’s known as ethical hacking, targeting criminals, while others have pursued political targets, sometimes in ways that are themselves criminal.
Take, for instance, when former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s Yahoo account was hacked in 2008. While it was determined that a lone individual–the son of a prominent Democrat–did the actual hacking and posted the password to Palin’s account on the 4chan site, various individuals who affiliated themselves with Anonymous had accessed the emails and leaked them to Wikileaks.
The emails eventually helped spark ethics investigations into Palin–investigations that, in the end, fizzled out into disappointment for anti-Palin forces and the media.
Still, Anonymous was not known to be overtly political at that point.
Then, in February 2011, Anonymous launched #OpWisconsin to protest against Governor Scott Walker’s budget and labor reforms by targeting Koch Industries.
Given that the $43,000 Koch donated to Walker represented “only one-tenth of 1 percent of the money that was spent on Wisconsin’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign,” Koch seemed an illogical target for Anonymous.
Regardless, some members of the hacktivist collective attacked the websites of Koch-made products, earning them prompt ridicule from many of their peers, who viewed them as having been co-opted by political operatives.
In July, the FBI targeted twelve individuals thought to be involved in the attacks on Koch. And later that month, when fourteen were arrested for their cyberattacks on PayPal in support of Wikileaks, Anonymous pleaded with its new labor union allies, calling upon the unions to return the favor of support.
Also in February 2011, software security firm HBGary Federal fell victim to Anonymous when its servers were breached. HBGary emails, leaked all over the Internet, revealed details of proposals the company was developing for a few high-profile clients.
“Kayla” [the Anonymous hacker] had claimed to be a 16-year-old girl who reportedly played a key role in a cyber attack against the software security firm HBGary Federal. Members of ‘Anonymous’ defaced HBGary’s website and stole 44,000 company e-mails in February after former CEO Aaron Barr told the Financial Times that he’d identified the “core leaders” of the group and had information that could lead to their arrest. […]
The emails revealed that the company had concocted plans to attack WikiLeaks on behalf of Bank of America and collected information on progressive political figures for the U.S Chamber of Commerce.
The fallout that ensued from the HBGary cyberattack–nicknamed “Chamberleaks”–also prompted progressive activists to politicize the incident by stepping up criticism of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a key Republican donor, calling for a full Congressional investigation.
Kevin Zeese, an attorney and representative with one of the organizations targeted by HBGary, as well as initiator of WikiLeaksIsDemocracy.org and a legal counsel contact for Anonymous, also filed a bar complaint against attorneys from both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its law firm, Hunton & Williams. The Chamber maintains that it had no knowledge of HBGary Federal’s proposal, nor had it commenced with any project with the firm.
Just last month, two individuals said to be with Anonymous and the offshoot group, LulzSec, were arrested for their suspected involvement in the cyberattack against HBGary Federal.
At the start of the #OccupyWallStreet protests, Anonymous began by taunting the banks, corporations, and individuals they deem “criminal”–who have no recourse to stop or redress the damage caused when they are attacked by name on Twitter and elsewhere online. The New York Stock Exchange was also warned.
[youtube KN-hB-yrfrA nolink]
NOTE: Anonymous now claims this video was a “high-scale media scare tactic“
To sum up: Anonymous was once viewed as a relatively apolitical, benign group, but it has since grown into a well-networked, savvy collective of hacktivists–one that is now overwhelmingly political and left-wing.
It may be leaderless, but at times, someone is leading. And while the majority of Anonymous purports to protect free speech, that is frequently not the case when a target’s political views do not match the left-wing views that have come to dominate the hacktivist collective.
Left or right, it is undeniable that Anonymous is a powerful collective that has seen numerous high-profile arrests. Despite the well-intentioned elements that are said to persist in some of its factions, many criminal elements do exist within Anonymous.
It is unclear just how the alliance of Anonymous and the #Occupy movement will turn out–whether a hacker culture that resists authority will continue to serve activists who insist on authoritarian “consensus.”
Already, Internet chatter reveals emerging arguments between Anonymous and #Occupy that reflect an underlying clash of political style and strategy.
Regardless, it bears repeating that the United States is a constitutional republic–not a simple democracy–for good reason.
That system, which guards individual rights and limits the power of any branch of government, is truly the most effective approach to ensuring that our freedoms remain protected from the whims of temporary majorities, and that we can each be ourselves without the fear of being oppressed because of what we say or believe as individuals.
Our nation was not founded to be a mass collective–digital or otherwise.