This week, there has been a lot of breathless press surrounding Wikileaks cyber-warring minions, Anonymous. The loose-knit collective of hackers is being credited with some impressive technical feats, as ABC News trumpeted: “What’s most surprising about "Operation Payback," cybersecurity experts say, is the simplicity of its approach to wreaking havoc on the web. The massive hack attack appears to have been orchestrated by a handful of organizers with control over a virtual army of tens of thousands of computers. The networks -- called botnets -- can inundate their targets with denial of service attacks, so overwhelming a site's server that regular customers can't get through.”
So who are Anonymous? Anonymous didn’t start with Wikileaks. They formed, more or less, on 4chan.org, a website where people upload and discuss random images culled from the Web. A monster truck DeLorean. A pink-eyed chinchilla. The images must be legal, other than that anything goes. Whenever a thread is particularly weak, discussants mark it with an image of Guy Fawkes, the pyrotechnic 16th century revolutionary, as re-imagined in the Wachowski Brothers’ dystopian movie V for Vendetta.
The point, besides laughs, is free expression, and to foster it they register on 4hcan under the same handle, Anonymous. Compared to ordinary life offline - where, like everyone, they have to watch what they say - the power they feel while cloaked is awesome. They can say anything, and some do with abandon. As the FAQ on 4chan reads, “Anonymous is not a single person, but rather, represents the collective whole of 4chan. He is a god amongst men.”
Empowered by anonymity, Anonymous began doing online pranks they called Raids. Once, hackers in the group busted into an online children’s game, flooding an animated swimming pool with their own characters. Another time, they posed as kids to entrap an Internet pedophile. Critics have accused them of more nefarious deeds, from flooding a guy’s MySpace page with pornography to calling in bomb threats at the Super Bowl. Because they’re unknown and anyone can claim to be among them, you never really know what, if anything, Anonymous is responsible for at all.
Anonymous went wide in 2008 when they waged a global protest against the Church of Scientology, which they accused of censorship and unjustified tax exempt status, among other things. It was an epic battle waged from YouTube to Utah. Scientology websites got flooded with denial of service attacks and crashed. Prank calls rang at Scientology headquarters off the hook. Black faxes spooled through Scientology faxes depleting the ink. Pizzas arrived at Churches around the world, including a reported 300 at the headquarters in Amsterdam alone. The Church of Scientology released a statement calling Anonymous members “cyberterrorists who hide their identities behind masks and computer anonymity.”
Anonymous marks something far larger and more interesting: all the fears and fascination of online anonymity made real. As one member of Anonymous told me, “We identify with Guy Fawkes. He’s a symbol of reform. He’s mysterious. You never know who he is. You never get his identity.”
David Kushner is the author of many books, including Masters of Doom, Jonny Magic & the Card Shark Kids, Levittown, The Bones of Marianna, and Alligator Candy. A contributing editor of Rolling Stone, he has written for publications including The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Wired, and The New York Times Magazine.