Who Was That Masked Man?

With a mixture of righteous indignation and outrageous prankery, the hacker collective Anonymous has emerged as a surprisingly potent actor in global politics. But what do they actually want, and how should governments respond?


It’s been denounced by NATO, targeted by the FBI, and subjected to dozens of frenzied editorials. Targets as varied as Bank of America, Sony, the Justice Department, and the government of Egypt have felt its wrath. Its trademark symbols have appeared everywhere from the streets of Cairo to Occupy Wall Street to the Polish parliament.  For a group that sprang organically from an Internet forum normally devoted to anime cartoons and cat videos, the amorphous hacker/prankster collective known as "Anonymous" has become a surprisingly potent actor in global politics. But to understand the forces that make the group tick, let’s look back to a time before SOPA and the Arab Spring and consider the strange story of one "Agent Pubeit."

On Jan. 14, 2009, an 18-year-old man emerged shirtless from the New York City subway system and walked through Times Square, heading toward the Scientology center on West 46th Street. The man was about to become the face — and hairy chest — of the Anonymous movement. If his skin looked a bit shiny, this wasn’t a trick of the light; "Agent Pubeit" had been slathered in petroleum jelly. Toenail clippings and piles of — to put it delicately — non-cranial hair had been carefully stuck all over his back, chest, and arms.

The effect was obscene — but then, according to a sizable number of "Anons" — so was the Church of Scientology. No longer content with the pure prankery of their early days, such as bombarding a California student with pornography and pizza deliveries for having the temerity to run a "No Cussing Club," Anonymous found in Scientology an adversary that provided a moralistic dimension for the group’s antics. Anons argued that the church was, in fact, a dangerous cult that brainwashed its overcharged members and that its tax-exempt status should be revoked.

Throughout 2008, Anonymous’s online campaign led to offline protests against Scientology around the world, in which the (mostly) young and (mostly) male Anons showed up with signs and wearing their signature Guy Fawkes masks from the movie V for Vendetta. Other Anons flooded the Scientology website with data, shutting it down for several days.

But nothing could have prepared Scientology for Agent Pubeit, who entered the 46th Street center and began, in the immortal words of the New York Daily News, to "’desecrate’ the Church of Scientology with a wacky weapon — Vaseline." Agent Pubeit touched everything he could put his greasy body on and then walked out of the center and into Anonymous infamy. A fellow Anon had followed him through Midtown with a camera to record the inevitable YouTube video that would accompany his exploits; the clip has been viewed 164,000 times.

The broader campaign against Scientology garnered Anonymous its first mainstream media attention, but it was the Pubeit operation that perfectly embodied the group’s schizophrenic embrace of both morality and pranksterism. Anonymous routinely veers sharply among earnest actions against censorship and repression, online vigilantism, outright cybercrime, and pranks — the more outrageous, the better. When Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly angered Anonymous in 2008, for instance, the group hacked his website in protest — but the spat didn’t end there. FBI documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show that some Anons couldn’t resist using a credit card stolen in the attack to send "penile enlargement" products to one of the talkshow host’s female fans; they then sent out pictures of — in the FBI’s own words — "three men performing oral" to everyone in the woman’s electronic address book.

The most important single thing to know about the group is that it’s not actually a "group" at all. There is no leader, there are no members, and there are no dues. No single person speaks for Anonymous, and no coordinating council drafts manifestos. Predictably, the result looks like chaos from the outside; even the group’s many "press releases" can be written by anyone and often propose crazy plans of actions that are quickly shouted down by others. (An Anon once proposed Operation WakeUp, for instance: "Simply Wake Up on March 9th and know, the world is one –think about this on March 9th. We are together on this planet." The idea went nowhere.)

Even today, the group has no single website, Twitter account, or chat room. Anonymous’s disparate factions don’t always coexist peacefully. Internecine arguments repeatedly break out between the Anons simply in it for the "lulz" — laughs — and the more earnest "moralfags" who see the group’s shadowy army as a force for progress and freedom.

Anonymous emerged gradually from the morass of 4chan, an almost-anything-goes image board that discards the convention of named accounts common on most Internet forums. Instead, everyone posts as "Anonymous"; it’s the content, not a name, that matters. While much of what happens on 4chan is little more than the harmless celebration of randomness for its own sake — it’s also the birthplace of such now-ubiquitous Internet tropes as LOLCats and Rickrolling — some of the activities took on a more aggressive edge. The people who gathered on 4chan’s infamous "/b/ board" — the most unfiltered of the site’s forums —  to prank or harass others gradually organized themselves into forces outside the site, forces that gradually took the name "Anonymous" and made it their own. By 2008, the Anonymous collective had forged a strong sense of itself.

In operations, as in communications, Anonymous follows a simple model: Anyone can propose anything. The measure of success is simply whether other Anons join in. Want to hack Muammar al-Qaddafi’s websites? Take down MasterCard? Wipe out a child-porn haven? Put out the word and start doing it. The result has been a dazzling series of "ops" against everyone from the government of Sweden to right-wing billionaires David and Charles Koch to the strategic consulting firm Stratfor.

Such wide-ranging operations might seem almost comical — and many have little effect — but when the Anonymous hive gets prodded, the prodder usually finds himself covered with bee stings and begging for mercy. After several payment processors stopped handling donations for WikiLeaks, for instance, Anonymous attacked — and overwhelmed — websites for Paypal, MasterCard, Visa, and PostFinance. In 2010, a controversial antipiracy lawyer in Britain had his website knocked offline, his e-mails taken and then released to the world — an act that eventually led to the lawyer’s bankruptcy and to recent professional sanctions. More recently, on Jan. 19, the group took down websites for the FBI and the Department of Justice in retaliation for the arrest and shutdown of file-sharing site Megaupload. The pranksters have steadily become "hacktivists" — and their target list is growing.

Most famously, a subset of Anons infiltrated security firm HBGary Federal in early 2011 after CEO Aaron Barr claimed he was about to expose the group’s top "leaders" to the FBI. The retaliatory hacks were complete, taking control of the company’s website, infiltrating its mail server and Barr’s Twitter account, and Anonymous released the company’s classified security work to the world. This little bit of cyber-vigilantism paid unexpected dividends: Barr had also been involved with dodgy plans to keep tabs on labor unions and to attack WikiLeaks, among other things. The sordid saga ended with Barr’s firing, the company closing, and comedian Stephen Colbert commenting, "To put this in hacker terms, Anonymous is a hornet’s nest, and Barr said, ‘I’m going to stick my penis in that thing.’"

These sorts of dramatic exploits, and the sheer amount of press they generate, have fueled the Anonymous sense of sitting on something politically powerful. It’s summed up neatly in the five-phrase Anonymous calling card:


Part of the appeal of Anonymous is the comic-book-style mythology in which it has cloaked itself: the projection of invisibility, the claim to omnipresence, the almost shocking sense of omnipotence. As one Anonymous "press release" put it when going after the "God Hates Fags" protestors of the Westboro Baptist Church:

"We, the collective super-consciousness known as ANONYMOUS – the Voice of Free Speech & the Advocate of the People – have long heard you issue your venomous statements of hatred, and we have witnessed your flagrant and absurd displays of inimitable bigotry and intolerant fanaticism. We have always regarded you and your ilk as an assembly of graceless sociopaths and maniacal chauvinists & religious zealots, however benign, who act out for the sake of attention & in the name of religion…

"Should you ignore this warning, you will meet with the vicious retaliatory arm of ANONYMOUS: We will target your public Websites, and the propaganda & detestable doctrine that you promote will be eradicated; the damage incurred will be irreversible, and neither your institution nor your congregation will ever be able to fully recover."

But despite the group’s mythology, its members aren’t always hard to find — especially now that the world’s great powers have taken notice.

Last year, a NATO report from the Britain’s Lord Jopling pointed to the HBGary Federal attacks and warned that Anonymous might soon go after government targets more directly. But the report expressed confidence that the longer Anonymous existed, "the more likely countermeasures will be developed, implemented, the groups will be infiltrated, and perpetrators prosecuted." (Anonymous claimed to have hacked NATO and taken a gigabyte of documents in retaliation.) Indeed, Anonymous chat rooms are filled with jokes about who in any particular channel might be a "Fed."

There was reason to be nervous. Several months after the attacks on PayPal and Visa, the FBI executed 40 search warrants across the United States. The effect on the young targets was immediate; they took to chat rooms and Internet forums to post pictures of busted-in front doors and accounts of the searches. "The FBI showed up at my door with a search warrant for any electronic devices that may have been used in the attack," wrote one. "I’m not retarded, I invoked my 5th amendment rights and didn’t say anything so now they are taking everything. Yes, I’m f**king dumb." In July 2011, the FBI picked up 14 Americans for alleged involvement in the PayPal attacks, while police arrested five more people overseas — including two believed to be high-profile Anons: "Tflow" and "Topiary." The pair turned out to be 16 and 18 years old, respectively.

Local police have been happy to get involved, too. In the Agent Pubeit case, the New York City police used Scientology security tapes to find and arrest the prankster and his cameraman a few days after their stunt; both were charged with hate crimes.

The question of how to respond to Anonymous’s increasingly political activities is a perplexing one for governments. Many of the group’s activities are criminal and, especially where fraud and damage are involved, should be prosecuted. But sentences can be too harsh. For instance, an Iowa State student joined the online attacks against Scientology’s website from his dorm room on January 24, 2008 — a full five days after they began. Scientology claimed that it spent $20,000 in extra funds on a security company that helped stem the floods of data. While investigating the case, federal agents tracked down and arrested the student, charged him with federal crimes and took him all the way to Los Angeles to answer for them. The student eventually pled guilty to a single count, was imprisoned for a year, and, despite the fact that hundreds or thousands of people may have taken part in the attack, was ordered to pay the full $20,000 in restitution.

Such harsh measures can be counterproductive. Despite their anti-authoritarian streak and juvenile tendencies, a significant faction of Anons stand for values supported by many democracies, such as freedom of speech, an open Internet, and government transparency — and they have a hatred for repressive regimes that would kindle the heart of the staunchest neoconservative. As one Anon put it during the group’s electronic attacks on the Libyan government last year, "Anonymous is willing to bring its help to the brave people of Libya… We, the people, will not remain silent while dictators fire upon their citizens." The ideology can be inconsistent and is often unformed, as it always will be in a "group" like Anonymous; the irony of shutting down websites you don’t agree with in the name of free speech and transparency seems to be lost on many of them.

But Anons tend to be young, their views still forming and their political thinking in flux. While governments can hardly countenance disorder and vigilantism on the Internet, they might more productively reach out, at least rhetorically, to Anonymous and similar movements, emphasizing shared values and encouraging innovative online dissent and activism through legal channels. The current strategy of mere opposition and tough federal penalties is unlikely to shut down a burgeoning international movement, and it’s no way to bring an upcoming generation of Internet activists into the political process.

Engagement makes sense simply as a practical matter. Anonymous’s ideals and symbolism continue to spread, even entering the governments that have opposed them. When Anonymous began ginning up opposition to a new intellectual property treaty called the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement after the European Union signed the agreement in late January, a bloc of Polish MPs objected to the secret way that the deal had been crafted (and with good reason). When the legislators decided to protest on the floor of parliament, what symbol did they hold up before their faces? Paper versions of the Guy Fawkes mask beloved by Anonymous.

Groups like Anonymous speak, sometimes in extreme form, to real demands of the "Internet generation": a more balanced copyright policy, more transparency, less censorship. Such demands can be seen in the fact that Swedish "Pirate Party" has members in the European Parliament. They can be seen in the massive recent Internet backlash against the Stop Online Piracy Act, where even Wikipedia shut down its English-language site for the day. Governments ignore the common concerns being expressed here at their peril.

None other than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has warned against efforts to "impose a system, cemented in a global code, that expands control over Internet resources, institutions, and content and centralizes that control in the hands of the government." Clinton would no doubt prefer to think that established human rights groups or dissident bloggers are in the vanguard against this control. But sometimes it’s greasy avenging angels like Agent Pubeit.

Nate Anderson is senior editor at Ars Technica, where he covers law and technology policy. He is also hard at work on a book about Internet policing.
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