Anon & Anthropology of Hacking

Anonymous is not a force to be reckoned with. Scientologists have felt their wrath for sometime, Sarah Palin did as well, as have MasterCard & Visa post-Wikileaks fiasco. I’m sure Aaron Barr is now realizing the impact Anon has. Aaron Barr is head of an internet security company, HBGary Federal. His company was contracted by Bank of America as a counter Wikileaks impending release of cables that will incriminate BofA.


Anon vs. Scientology


Ars Technica has written up a 3 page account of the situation, which is absolutely fascinating. The tl;dr seems like its comes straight out of a B movie. Aaron’s ingenious plan was to ‘infiltrate’ Anon…He joined IRC channels in an attempt to sabotage Anon and get names of those in the organization.

His problems started here. Aaron failed to realize Anon is not a true organization. At its core, Anon is an anti-organization, as anarchist as you can be, with no leadership and an ever-changing membership. Aside from infiltrating the chat groups, Aaron attempted to flesh out members of Anon via a guilt-by-association method using something akin to 6-degrees-of-separation and social media. He revealed himself to the group, claiming to research them.

What ended up completely backfired on Aaron. Anon was pissed. In traditional hacking manner, they hacked his company’s site and replaced the front page. They also managed to get a hold of at least 44,000 of his emails and release them via torrents. They deleted 1 TB of his backups, wiped his devices and to top it all of, got a hold of his Twitter and LinkedIn accounts where they posted messages as him. For a company that was in the midst of a sale, Anon effectively ruined that.

This leads me to a open up a discussion regarding the Anthropology of Hackers, a timely piece that appeared in the Atlantic yesterday by NYU’s Gabriella Coleman. In her write up she outlines her 13 week curriculum on the culture of hacking, covering topics like open source, privacy & anonymity, and the dawn of the nerds. Ironically, almost all are relavent to HBGary Federal, given Aaron’s troubles. I wonder how they’d benefit from a crash course in Coleman’s class. Looking at Coleman’s course topics, there’s a lot to consider regarding hacking. The most relevant to this topic is the material covered in Weeks 11 & 12,

Week Eleven: Anarchism and the Politically Minded Hacker

Many hackers express some degree of ambivalence over the politics of hacking as Patrice Riemens has argued and as hackers themselves have raised. This is not the case with a small but well organized cadre of hackers located primarily in Latin AmericaEurope, and North America who havecharted collectives, many of them influenced by the political philosophy of anarchism. To grapple with anarchism as a political philosophy (which, similar to hacking, is plagued with a parade of misconceptions), we turn to David Graeber‘s fantastic pamphlet, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. We also read Jeff Juris’s ethnographic work about technology activists during the counter-globalization era Networking Futures.

Week Twelve: Trolls and the Politics of Spectacle

If anyone has been paying attention to the Internet in recent years, it has been impossible to miss a class of provocateur and saboteur: the Internet troll, whose raison d’être is to be as offensive as humanely possible via raunchy (but often humorous and quite esoteric) language, images, pranks, and tricks, basically, doing it for what they call the “lulz.” To get a sense of the cultural logic and exploits of trolls we read “The Trolls Among Us” by Mattathias Schwartz. To help us grapple with the nature of spectacle, we read a couple of chapters of Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy by Stephen Duncombe. We read excerpts from Lewis Hyde’s magnificent book on tricksters to consider whether the troll might be an example of these mythical creatures that have dazzled countless societies with their trickery. We watch a talk on a protest movement against the Church of Scientology whose roots lie in the act of trolling buteventually turned into a morally serious protest movement, which nonetheless retained the tactics of spectacle as part of its political arsenal.

This is a very interesting time to be looking at the intersection of technology and culture. There are anthropologists doing some fascinating work researching the sense of identity in online communities like World of Warcraft and Facebook… These groups share an online space, often with avatars and complex long-lasting interactions.

But with Anon there’s no identity.

Anon remains behind ever-changing screen names and masked localities behind proxies. I’m sure if you’ve ever taken an Intro to Cultural Anthropology course you would have touched on Erik Erikson’s theories of personality, We know what defines identity is a loose association of markers like behavior, language, dress, shared spaces, etc. Anon is disparate to any modern definition of identity. They do not share the same space, language, or any other measure of similarity except for behavior and ideology…

“We are Anonymous.  We are Legion.  We do not forgive.  We do not forget.  Expect us.”

I’d really like to get to hear Coleman’s take on this current event, or any cultural anthropologist for the matter. So if you’re interested, please chime in on your take on this all — What do you understand on Anon and how are they similar/dissimilar to other groups?

8 thoughts on “Anon & Anthropology of Hacking

  1. I find it interesting that Anon is thought to not share the same language. Couldn’t the code they all use to hack websites be thought of as a language?

  2. My experiances with Anon tend to be on a personal level. I have a friend who is a regular on 4-chan who talks about what’s popular; he did the Anon Scientology protests, but right now they’re into my little ponies. Someone from Anon also swatted my house.

    For those unfamiliar with the term, this is what happened. Someone called the police; that person looked like they were calling from my telephone number and told the police that they were my (ex)huband, and that they had a gun to our son’s head and was going to commit double suicide. They then gave them the address that was online for our home. We had moved, so when the police showed up in our house they were a lot more calm then they were for the poor resident at our old apartment, but I hope to never have a cop come into my bedroom at 2am and tell me to get dressed and come to the living room ever again.

  3. My understanding of Anon I would consider to be quite good and both contradicts and supports what Rebecca Sparks says occured to her. Basically the whole premise of the ‘group’ is that it in fact does not exist. That is a serious point. There is no such organisation as Anon. The whole point is to claim that there is an organisation, which makes organisation of democratic protest possible.

    And this is the central key point. Some crazy, with decent hacking COULD theoretically do what was done to RS and then claim to be from Anon but that wouldn’t be true. In fact in cases like that it is most likely that the act of claiming to be from Anon was trolling or obfuscating (not sure if that is the correct term).

    Anyone can be Anon … at any time they want. But it is only at the points that someone comes up with a good idea that they are anything other then ‘amateur’ hackers. Sure, there is probably some pretty advanced hackers who’ve jumped onto their causes or in the above case assumed the identity. Hell there are even proven cases where law enforcement committed illegal acts to discredit them.

    But the true power is the flaws in the internet model itself. A large amount of simple actions by simple internet users can floor an organisations use of the web. They can shut down websites, break passwords etc. by simply using the brute force of mass numbers. This is why I referred earlier to Anon as a democratic organisation, since they require numbers to actually be Anon.

    The other reason they need numbers is the flock principle. Their actions are not actually anonymous. They are easily tracked. Hacking properly and untraceably is exceptionally hard and the stuff of professionals like Wikileaks not some ‘troll’ who jumps onto the cause of say protesting Australian govenrnment censorship.

    But that cause is so popular it can get thousands of people online at once, making it basically impossible for existing law enforcement to track down and prosecute everyone. Same deal with attacking VISA for messing with Wikileaks or Mubarak for killing people.

    Essentially, my point is that Anon is an anarchic mass that only functions as such when there is a cause large enough to gather attention. Without attention and without its anarchic pseudo existence it is not Anon.

    Also, another counter-point to someones statement above; Talking about Anon’s language in terms of programming is a little faux. Programming languages are typically just complex forms of English, not ‘languages’ in the way Anthropologists refer to them. However these are not the languages of Anon … they use whatever language is most relevant to the causes that are popular. Perhaps they use Arabic now and English tomorrow but most probably a loose collection of what is relevant. It all depends on the who and the why since they are not specific individuals and they use these languages to organise their loose collective.

    Basically, today, we could try to be Anon if we wanted, and tomorrow a group opposed to us could be Anon and if both of our goals / views were popular enough we would become Anon. Any of us could google the tools they use and put them into action and with numbers we could shut down each others activities.

    Fortunately though, the only causes that seem interesting enough to people are causes which involve attacking authoratarian governments and their agents so average people are genuinely safe from Anon … and for this reason I am highly suspect of anyone claiming a story like RSparks given the resources of Authoratarian governments currently under attack by the public (the word I think better describes Anon).


    1. James, I am wounded! My story is true. Perhaps my brevity was misleading. I deleted a paragraph in my original disclosure about how this attack was related to my ex-husband’s exploits as an internet troll. I was not randomly selected as a victim. He had been fighting with 4-chan and Anon, and quite a few other trolls and troll groups. He has a page on ED. The man I had loved got depressed turned mean and spiteful, and the fall out from his bad online behavior was that our family suffered through death threats, harassing telephone calls and texts, fake puppet accounts, but the worst would was the swatting. Only the swatting was claimed by a person associated with Anon.
      I think of Anon less as an organization and more of an identity. Who can be Anon is not quite as fluid as you are claiming it to be–or at least that is my understanding. I see them as people who hang out on Futaba or 4chan and choose to claim Anon when they coordinate or perpetuate certain trollish or public actions. You still need to fit into the forum groups. A person who has vlogging anti-Anon would not be as part of the community, or person who claims to be Anon but doing projects that go against the majority. Anon members still talk to each other and choose what defines who they are; much like what defines a goth or otaku or any other subculture group. But they also can change tastes; my 4-chan friend was into the anti-Scientology stuff big time, but he’s no hacker. He hasn’t participated in the recent hacking.
      You seem to only be interested in the big things that Anon do, something over a critical mass of people participating. I was not this type of target. How many people would have to be involved before it counts as Anon? Could you really have a group of people do something in the name of Anon and not have roots at SA/ED/4chan/futuba and have it really done by Anon, or would they be seen as posers? Who is Anon; the anarchist identity that rallies trolls and hackers or the people who occasionally chose to identify or act under the pseudonym?

  4. Tremendously fascinating article! Thanks for the heads up on this fast moving story, which had me laughing at times and being chilled at others. If I were a culturalist, I would seriously consider hacking as a field “site.” The excerpted course on the subject looks superb.

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