Summerized quickly, it can be seen as a prank, a bunch of young geeks, using the little power they have over the Internet to play as they will. Except that this prank has brought about many damages, recently the closure for several hours of governmental egyptian websites, during the arabian revolutions. Everything tends even to show that Anonymous is an organized group, with hackers or activists sharing the same values, imaginary and mode of operation.
Where does Anonymous come from?
The Anonymous group became first known for its attacks against Scientology. In 2008, after a request from the sect to remove a youtube video showing Tom Cruise preaching scientologist worshippings, Anonymous decided to retalliate, considering Scientology as a threat to freedom of speach. This attack was called “Project Chanology“. Several other attacks followed, including against Paypal during the Wikileaks gate, and against the tunisian government during the Arabian revolutions. What is interesting in those attacks is that all have the same purpose, to stand up for freedom of speach, and that all are placed at the limits of legality, when they do not exceed them frankly. Wikileaks does not claim to be on the part of legality but on the one of lawfulness.
How do they proceed?
Inspired by the comic V for Vendetta, written by Alan Moore and adapted into a film in 2006, Anonymous is a virtual community, this often implies a decentralized network, without any real known or permanent leader. They gather in the Internet, in imageboards forums like 4chan, which are websites on which anyone can post picture and comment them, with very few regulations.
Their group is a “meme”, a virtual idea and concept that is appropriated by a lot of persons in the web, and transformed, diverted as will. The most famous example of this are the “lolcats”, images ad videos of cats in funny situations, that are currently flooding the web.
On sites like 4chan, the Anonymous post images like the one above proposing to target a company, a group that is according to them threatening freedom of speach on the Internet. Actions are then taken if these images are relayed by others, and if they have an echo in the community. Many, many organizations have been victims of more or less legal actions triggered by such posts. Among these actions the most dangerous one is the “Distributed Denial-of-Service” attack, or DDoS. This consists in flooding at the same time the bandwith or server of the targeted site. Thus, the site is shut down for a certain period, from a few minutes to several hours.
What is striking in all these events is that the protocol seems quite simple. In most cases the Anoymous just have to download an open source tool, like LOIC (the acronym for Low Orbit Ion Canon), which, if used by a lot of people at the same time, can cause a lot of damages for websites.
Is Anonymous dangerous?
There are several ways to look at Anonymous.
Of course, Anonymous has a capacity of nuisance that isn’t accepted by the enterprises. Lexsi, a French company specialized in websecurity, insists on the fact that these attacks are very fast, they can be decided in a few hours, the attack againt Mugabe’s wife in Zimbabwe for instance only took 3 hours. They must watch over many different networks to prevent and counteract these attacks. Some have really been harmful, like the DDoS attack, the 8th December 2010, of Mastercard, called “Operation Avenge Assange”, during which the site became unavailable for a few hours, preventing any transaction in the site.
On the other hand, Anonymous has the benefit of opinion. Their values are acceptable for an external spectator, to defend liberty of speach in all its forms in the Internet. According to them, the web is supposed to be a sanctuary, in which no one has the right to impose its personnal rule. Their youth (the Anonymous are mostly between 15 and 25 years old) even accounts for their enthousiasm and their radicality of view. The entities they attack are often seen as reprehensible by many, and, even if their methods are not always legal, they represent the opinion of a large number of people. There is a part of Robin Hood, of community responsibilty, of Guy Fawkes even, as they inspire themselves from this character, in their actions.
The most famous deed of Anonymous is obviously the operation Payback, or “Operation Avenge Assange”, in which they took the defense of Wikileaks against other sites like Paypal. However, the Anonymous are also behind lots of other political events and don’t hesitate to take part in struggles if they believe them legitimate. We can be almost sure that they helped the Tunisians revolutionaries in their fight against Ben Ali, for instance by helping them to have an access to the Inthernet and to censored sites (like Twitter).