Say Hello to ‘Anonymous’ in Cyberspace
By Keith Hansen
On Jan. 27, the FBI issued more than 40 search warrants that targeted individuals and groups they claim are involved in cyber-attacks directed at various multinational corporations. The most notorious suspect in this investigation is actually a group of individuals known publicly as “Anonymous” who have been engaged in an apparent cyber-vendetta called “Operation Payback.”
The first prominent strike by Anonymous occurred when the group inflicted a specific computer attack known as a “distributed denial of service attack” (DDoS) against companies like PayPal, Visa and MasterCard after these entities cut off donations to WikiLeaks, the controversial site known for releasing the contents of U.S. diplomatic cables, among other sensitive materials. By overwhelming the companies that manage the Internet sites of these corporations, Anonymous sought to crash their websites, as we are told.
Many people are obviously curious about this group’s identity, and if they really exist. Anonymous, however, is not a fiction but a group of some sort that claims it is not a group. Their self-description is obviously intended to be enigmatic.
In a video declaration entitled “What is Anonymous”—posted on the YouTube website with an accompanying transcript—it is stated that Anonymous “does not exist.”
To make things a bit clearer, it continues: “Anonymous is nothing but an idea, an Internet “meme” [ideas or beliefs transmitted from one person or a group of people, to another] that can be appropriated by anyone, anytime, to rally for a common cause that’s in the benefit of humankind.”
So, Anonymous is an organization that, by its own definition, is not an organization; one that is stepping up its global presence by assuming a cyber role much the same—as Anonymous sees it—as that played by “V,” the masked protagonist in the political film V for Vendetta which is based on a 10-volume graphic novel first published in the early 1980s.
Anonymous has garnered some support in what it sees as a battle against cyber oppression and censorship, and there is no question that Anonymous’ actions against other targets are not considered wholly unreasonable by literally millions of Internet users.
Last September, techno-journalist David Meyer conducted an interview with a spokesperson for the PandaLabs security company—which serves as an information outlet for Anonymous—who stated that Anonymous’ mission was to “fight back against the anti-piracy lobby.”
According to PandaLabs, Anonymous also hit the India-based security firm AiPlex Software in retaliation for the company’s DDoS attacks on Internet file-sharing sites such as the Pirate Bay.
Despite the fact that Anonymous seems to be striking a blow for powerless Internet users worldwide, there is a troublesome downside to its tactics.
Not unlike the actions of V, and later Batman in The Dark Knight or, of a much earlier time, Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo, the actions undertaken by Anonymous could be perceived as crossing a line between righteous vengeance and another form of aggressive oppression.
As stated by security advisor Rik Ferguson in a Jan. 2 commentary, “These electronic attacks are no different [than] attacks on physical infrastructure. The attacks are designed to inconvenience and to disrupt; to cause financial impact to the victim and to anyone relying on that victim’s services. In the real world we would call such attacks terrorism, and in the digital world . . . terrorist attacks are far easier to launch than they are to defend against.”
As liberating as Anonymous may appear, its code is as flawed as those of other movements that have sought to bring change and—though seemingly well intentioned—struggled with the question: who decides what is good or bad?
Another excerpt from the “What is Anonymous?” post states: “If the majority of the public disagrees with a proposed appropriation, then the public will protest and label the message in question as not legitimate and thus not representing the values of Anonymous . . . . This does not mean there can’t be ‘bad’ actions presented as coming from Anonymous, but if people do not agree with these actions, then these actions are—by definition—not undertaken by Anonymous.”
With all the valuable information that can be accessed in an instant, the Internet is also clogged with misinformation, disinformation, and flat-out deception perpetrated all too often by sources in masquerade or anonymity.
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(Issue # 8, February 21, 2011)