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 (3923×4656), a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from thinkanonymous's photostream)