/ Marcus Sakey / 4 pm Fri, Feb 19 2016
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  • Ultra-coordinated motherfuckery

    Ultra-coordinated motherfuckery

    In 2013, a hacktivist group calling itself Konstant kOS raided one of the government’s most secure computer networks. Their target was a list of more than a million American citizens monitored as potential terrorist threats. The list was classified because it was feared that making it public could result in widespread violence.

    Konstant kOS, on other hand, believed information needed to be free. They thought citizens should know about potential terrorists amongst them. Also, they thought stealing and publishing the list would be fun.

    written-in-fire
    Marcus Sakey's Written in Fire is available from Amazon.

    So they did. As a result, thousands of innocents were assaulted or even murdered.

    This didn’t happen, of course; it’s a small detail in my novel Written in Fire, the final book in the Brilliance Trilogy. The premise of the series is that since 1980, 1% of people have been born with extraordinary gifts, essentially a form of savantism that lets them see patterns the rest of us can’t. Some spot rhythms in the stock market and amass vast fortunes; others read body language so minutely they can intuit your thoughts and fears. The stolen data was a nearly complete list of these “brilliants.”

    While Konstant kOS is my invention, they’re obviously based on hacker collectives like Anonymous, which fascinate me. Shadowy organizations of rogue anarchists waging private wars resulting in everything from surreal silliness to rough justice to reprehensible and mistargeted damage? Tell me more.

    At this point, I should say that while I’m tech-savvy, by the standards of this fine publication, I’m at best a journeyman. I haven’t the vaguest notion how to use Tor, or conduct a denial of service attack. I don’t even have an anti-RFID wallet. (Note to self: Get one.)

    The bulk of coverage on groups like Anonymous falls into two camps. The first is the Chicken Little crowd, which cherry-picks worst-case hypotheticals – What if they take down the power grid?! – and presents them as fear porn. The far more interesting side focuses on trying to parse them, to explore of origins and culture and mechanics and meaning.

    What’s odd to me, though, is that you rarely see a piece openly weighing the potential positive nature of groups like Anonymous.

    For example, it could be argued that politically minded hackers may represent a modern version of the protection the second amendment was intended to offer. In 1791, the right to bear arms to defend against an over-reaching government wasn’t theoretical. Today, it’s hard to imagine physical weapons serving the same purpose. But it’s easy to see how hacktivists might — especially if you broaden the opponents to include hate groups and rapacious multinationals.

    Plus, much of the time they’re targeting assholes. Hacktivists have shut down child porn sites and released personal information on the people who run them. They digitally raided the Westboro Baptist Church, an organization that enjoys picketing funerals with signs declaring “God Hates Fags.” They’ve tangled with both Scientology and the Koch brothers, and it’s hard not to delight in bloody noses on those faces.

    If it sounds like I’m rooting for Anonymous, it’s because part of me is. They not only tend to punish shitheads, they do it with a sense of warped humor. It amuses me that their own description of their methods is “ultra-coordinated motherfuckery.” They’re rogues, an archetype no storyteller can resist. But on a more civilized level, I posit that there is real benefit derived from them, too. Their actions point out weaknesses in our systems, invaluable when you consider that in any future conflict digital superiority will be as important as air superiority is today.

    Of course, it’s not that simple. Revealing personal data on people who trade in underage sexual exploitation is fine with me. But what if some of the names are included just to settle a grudge? Or if the situation isn’t as clear-cut as child abuse? When Ashley Madison user data was released by The Impact Team, the stated reasons were disgust with infidelity and extortionary business practices. But even if that is the purest truth—and it probably isn’t—the consequences were far messier, including several suicides.

    Making things more complicated, it’s impossible to say what Anonymous is about, because there is no single Anonymous. It’s not a company, or a government; it’s a bunch of individuals of widely varied intentions that come together to work on the ops that amuse them. The purpose, philosophy, and capabilities shift moment to moment. For every “moralfag” out to right wrongs, there are others who just think it’s hilarious to d0x people.

    That lack of structure is both a strength and a weakness. It makes them difficult to target and impossible to eradicate. But it also means that there is a limit to how effective they can be. As the Occupy Movement demonstrated, it’s tough to change anything when you’re talking about everything. Especially if your rhetoric involves cat pictures and your public appearances are in Guy Fawkes masks.

    At the end of the day, I’m glad that collectives like Anonymous exist. This is probably a personal failing. While I know that I shouldn’t root for the Barefoot Bandit, the Washington teenager who stole airplanes he didn’t know how to land, or be delighted by the tale of the Antwerp Diamond Heist, in which half a billion dollars in jewels were stolen without one injury, the stories are too good to not to enjoy.

    Plus, maybe it’s naïveté, but I’d like to believe that if the circumstances are dire enough, hacktivists will throttle back on pointless pranks and make a difference. Biella Coleman, an NYU professor and leading writer on Anonymous, compares the group to the mythological archetype of the Trickster.

    In mythology, the Trickster is the character with secret knowledge, the one who disdains rules and swears allegiance only to their own amusement. They’re about chaos for chaos’s sake—right up to the moment the best trick is to save the world.

    Marcus Sakey's thrillers have been nominated for more than fifteen awards, named New York Time's Editor's Picks, and selected among Esquire's Top 5 Books of The Year. His novel GOOD PEOPLE was made into a movie starring James Franco and Kate Hudson, and BRILLIANCE is currently in development with Legendary Pictures (Inception, The Dark Knight.) Marcus was also the host of the acclaimed television show "Hidden City" on Travel Channel, for which he was routinely pepper-sprayed and attacked by dogs.

    Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Biella Coleman as another journalist.

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