Nuanced view of the once and future Anonymous

Biella Coleman and Michael Ralph write a long, nuanced rebuttal of Joseph Menn's recent FT article on Anonymous. Coleman, an academic who has done some fabulous work studying hackers, Anonymous and other 21st century anthropological phenomena, is the person I trust most to produce clear accounts of Anon, 4chan, and related subjects.

These hacks may also, as Menn notes, have unintended and far reaching consequences for all of us. As Menn notes, "Even some supporters worry that if the group continues on its current path, it could trigger a legislative backlash that would bring heightened monitoring at the expense of the privacy that Anonymous prizes." Still, it is crucial that we consider the broader historical perspective. This sort of "legislative backlash" has been in the works at least since 2001, with the Patriot Act, spurred by the terrorist attacks against the Twin Towers. And since that time, there have been many attempts to legislate acts that curtail privacy in the stipulated attempt to make the nation more secure. These legal developments have clearly not simply been instituted in the last year in response to hacks. No doubt, the hacking actions of Anonymous can be used to move legislative proposals into law more rapidly, but portrayals of nefarious hacker criminals also inflames fears about privacy that are long on emotion and short on substance.

Anon hackers are "criminals" in so far as any hacker has inevitably broken a host of laws; some individuals involved may also have a criminal history. And yet most hackers either implicitly or explicitly have critiques of the laws they are willing to transgress. Thus, the analyst must provide some account of the way that a given law can be conceived as either fulfilling or failing to fulfill the dual investment in freedom and security that defines life in the US polity at any given juncture and why hackers seek to trouble this distinction.

To make matters even more complicated, the work of some of the hackers in Anonymous includes modes of duplicity that some Anons self-consciously deploy; in transgressive hacker circles, these tactics include social engineering: the practice of duping humans for the purposes of gaining information or for spreading misinformation. Used by Anons, to various degrees, offensively and defensively, these forms of subterfuge raise a host of important questions about how to research, represent, and grapple with the significance of the politics of hacking, especially where a clandestine operation like Anonymous is concerned.

(Thanks, Biella!)

(Image: Anonymous Declaration of IndepenDance. Wallpaper (3923x4656), a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from thinkanonymous's photostream)


  1. The obvious error in citing the group, is that anyone can do something in the name of Anonymous. There are things they do badly. There are things they do that are a gain to society, like focusing attention on certain issues. Problem is, anyone can bring up and issue and get others to help, and when it is illegal, the whole group is painted as criminal. In my eyes, they’re grey-hats.

  2. If you really wanted something *done*, would you feel the need to band together and use a name to do it?  No.  You’d find a way and just get it done.  That’s why you don’t see the deviously effective hackers promoting themselves under a name.  They *just do it.*  I’m not saying it’s right, or that one is right and the other is wrong.  What I’m saying is that because of the constant public-addresses, Anonymous lacks credibility, and is distracting from the real black hats who are trying to launch the nuclear missiles.

  3. Help! Will someone please fix the mobile layout? It doesn’t scroll for Android Browser, Dolphin, Skyfire, xScope, probably others—Firefox Mobile and Opera Mobile work.

      1. Also, during a page loading, pages tend to jump back up to the top if you have not waited until the load is completely completely complete.  If you try to scroll during the load, it’s massively frustrating to have keep re-scrolling.  Then it flips you back up to the top *again* and you have to re-scroll again…  and again… until the page is loaded.  There has to be a way to just additively load on a phone rather than resetting the place marker where you’ve scrolled to so far.

  4. Citing things like the Patriot Act is crucial when trying to frame argument about a “legislative backlash,” because it highlights the chain of events.  It isn’t “Anonymous happened, so your civil liberties were suspended & unreasonable electronic search & seizure became the norm.”  That isn’t how it went.  It was vice versa– the Patriot Act, THEN groups like Anonymous.  Whatever your views on Anonymous are, it is important to note the causality.

    1. Mordicai, how DARE you bring it back to the point of the article?!

      Now, everyone, back to demonizing Anonymous and pushing your own agenda.

  5. Anonymous. Is not. A group. Anonymous does not have members or even a concept of membership. Anonymous is an idea, a label that people can assume when they want to do something anonymously.

    1. Can we not then discuss what people do under that banner?  Group or not, it is a label that people willingly claim.

      1. Anonymous is a semi-autonomous gestalt entity whose composition is constantly in flux

        I think that might be a bit generous. Coleman’s blog makes it apparent that there are mostly two types who “hang around” Anon: Techs (“hackers”), and Non-Techs (“activists”). There might indeed be flux within the ranks, but calling it gestalt just sounds too mythical. Its not like the groups overall purpose or motivation has waviered, as such a description might suggest. There is form there, just no one is talking about what that form is.  

        It is unfortunate that these sorts of sentiments are filling the void left by a lack of hard data on the group.  

        EDIT: upon continued thought I think you are also engaging in definitional abuse of the word gestalt as you choose to modify it with “flux”. Which then begs the question, is the entity in question a unified concept or not?

  6. Well nobody but Biella Coleman has the inside scoop. Its seems a bit unrealistic to expect or demand that Menn or anyone else make use of such inside analysis as availiable to Coleman and this blog. So what are we left with? I would suggest that Coleman take a more proactive, and not a reactive, approch to the whole matter.

    Go ahead and explain for the rest of the general public what we need to know. The longer she waits the muddier the waters get, and the more confusing it will be for everyone else.

  7. Anonymous aren’t the only group using these techniques.  They aren’t even the most active.  They are just the most benign, and most publicized.  Groups like the Russian Business Network cause a lot more damage and stay under the media radar.

    So: worrying about legislative backlash is a weird issue.  I think that we have some big problems with the infrastructure of the internet, and the way it interfaces geopolitcally.  Backlash could be a very good thing if it was the right kind of backlash, in which we put effort into maintaining the freedoms we want the internet to provide, with less exposure to the risks we currently face (and this isnt just an internet issue- it goes to things like the way we handle credit).

    I think what the author of the article is concerned about isn’t backlash per se- it’s more that we are a lot more likely to get a knee-jerk authoritarian response from governments than a considered refactoring.

    The author reduces the solution to two choices: ignore the fire, or throw gas on it.  Sadly, I agree that those are the most LIKELY two choices available.

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