FLAMING RETORT: Whither Anonymous, our new generation of cyberfreedom fighters?

Filed Under: Law & order, Malware, Privacy

Welcome to another installment of the controversy-soothing and crack-paper-overing Naked Security column, Flaming Retort!

As explained in the first Flaming Retort, this column does not exist to praise our readers' best flames, nor to repeat them merely in the name of perverse humour, nor to return fire in the wearisome tradition of a flame war.

The goal of Flaming Retort is to comment on a few vigorously held opinions in order to see whether things really are as clear cut - or as polarised - as the flamers might think.

And what better topic than Anonymous?

You either get it or you don't. You're either for it or against it. You're either a member or you're not. It either exists or it doesn't. You either hang out at 4chan, or - I think you know where this is going - you don't.

Anonymous is a strange beast.

It has recently attracted a surprising amount of support, some vigorous and uncompromising. Indeed, one of the most aggressively rude and unsociable comments on this site is also the one which has attracted the biggest positive vote:

Hi. You're going to call off your rigorous investigation. You're going to publicly state that there is no underground group. Or... these guys are going to take your balls. They're going to send one to the New York Times, one to the LA Times press-release style. Look, the people you are after are the people you depend on. We cook your meals, we haul your trash, we connect your calls, we drive your ambulances. We guard you while you sleep. Do not... f*** with us.

Of course, this isn't actually a real flame. It doesn't even have any original content. It's just a cut-and-paste from the script of the pre-dot-bomb era film Fight Club. And the votes probably aren't real, either, as a responder points out:

Looks like the Anonymous vote bots have been at this comment.

The Fight Club commenter clearly favours Anon. But not everyone likes everything about it. In particular, one commenter, who doesn't express any negative opinion about Anon's overall je ne sais quoi, nevertheless offers the pithy - and undeniably acute - observation that:

Anon are terrible hackers. A true hacker, well, never leaves a trace he was even on the system.

This, as it happens, is one of the comments with the greatest number of negative votes. Hell hath no fury, it seems, like a faceless group scorned.

Where does this get us? Should you join Anonymous? Should you start reading 4chan? (That's a rhetorical question. One doesn't so much read 4chan as flounder in it.) Should you join DDoS attacks to prove your social conscience?

Are you really a hacktivist if you anonymously follow the bidding of a bunch of unknowns (literally, if not figuratively) into online activities which you might later regret? If you get caught, will it actually have been worth it?

At the risk of sounding like an Angry Young Man whose anger is now a thing of the past, let me offer today's web-savvy youngsters some advice.

This quandary - to belong to a possibly-vibrant, probably-illegal, but perhaps unsavoury group - seems surprisingly like the "deal" offered by the virus-writing scene 20 years ago. Back then, to youngsters who thought that the counterculture had something to offer but weren't too sure whether they actually wanted to break the law, I suggested trying something more ambitious - and socially more useful - instead.

Virus-writing then, like DDoSing now, doesn't require much intellectual skill. It teaches nothing that cannot be learned more easily in reputable ways. It frequently harms the innocent. And you spend the next ten years hoping no-one will notice you were actually part of the scene. Writing some decent code, however, which actually helps people, is great fun and educationally useful. And you can even put it on your C.V. and take pride in your achievements.

Here's a suggestion. If you're straining to be socially relevant and helpful to those less fortunate than you, but you're not yet ready to sell all your possessions, leave the comfort of your home and go drilling drinking wells in Africa, you can still contribute.

Indeed, you can be a proud and public hacktivist, without going anywhere near Anonymous. There are many places to start. Here's one. Click and find out more.

(Why not watch this video? That's Johnny Long, of Hackers for Charity dot Org, talking at Defcon 17 in 2009. Listen right through, until you hear him say, "Make a difference. Do something.")

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15 Responses to FLAMING RETORT: Whither Anonymous, our new generation of cyberfreedom fighters?

  1. Rogi Equality Riverstone · 1148 days ago

    Well, I love the WBC gimmick. That was very validating. I've lost a lot of friends through queer bashing. I'm not ok with the hate speech and slurs tossed around so causally with these twerps who have NO historical context for the language they use for shock value. I think the Assange-can-do-no-wrong deal is very Borg. Some of them make fun videos. And they seem to actually be helpful when dictators shut down internet access and cell phones. I wish they knew more about social history, and the context in which they're working. but I was sooo glad to go to g*dhatesf@gs website and some other WBC sites today and get nothing. Hate kills.

  2. zeke1109 · 1148 days ago

    Amen to that brotha! Anybody remember the movie, "Catch me if you can?". In the end he ended up working with the FBI and made MILLIONS helping others. Imagine how much you could make as a counter-hacker who would defend against attacks.

  3. Mike Kirby · 1148 days ago

    You're clearly among the people who Don't Get It.

  4. a reasonable dude · 1148 days ago

    unfortunately, the vast majority of the "borg" (anonymous' mindless followers) wouldn't know how to code themselves out of a paper bag. real activism is much more rewarding than throwing yourself into a pool of illegality in the name of someone else's ideals.

  5. frank · 1148 days ago

    That's so simplified, i really can't believe it. You are breaking down complicated things to stuff you can handle, like DDoSing. What's with the ongoing demonstrations in front of Scientology Buildings? Or with the help they contributed towards Egypt - also still ongoing.
    And there you are, trying to tell them to go away and do completely other things, except of giving them real advice on how they could be more helpful. Anonymous has the power to change people, just because they are getting so much attention.

    And on your thing with digging water wells in Africa... that's really stupid. Everyone should know that the real problem is, that western companies are robbing the entire continent. nd the only proper way to handle this, is leaking the shit out of them. Not the lack of water, but the lack of education (the africans can dig for themselves).

  6. Anon (not THE Anon) · 1148 days ago

    I think being a part of Anonymous has one point that the 100% legal ways don´t, the myth of the Outlaws. Especially young people are drawn to that myth and if they do good (in their opinion) it even gets stronger.
    Again Anonymous is not only the hacking parts, there are a lot of things going on which have nothing to do with hacking but more of the classical trolling, which also happens under the label of Anonymous, not to mention the still ongoing "war" against Scientology etc....

    I think that´s another part of the fascination of Anonymous, everyone decides their level of involvement....

  7. User · 1148 days ago

    Hackers for Charity is awesome. Thank you for talking about them.

  8. jessi slaughter · 1148 days ago

    uhmn egypt proved you can shut off the internet anytime you want (the kill switch exists here and in your country) and then night dragon showed that american self-defense is basically useless and we do PR better than actual security (hb gary was a consultant on the night dragon paper), then Anon exposed HB Gary for being a dangerous government-funded fraud, and oh, Stuxnet was made by the Israeli government.

    But, nope, Anon is the problem and if they just added "good coder" to their CV and got a job then it would all be ok.

    great post.

  9. Thu Win · 1148 days ago

    It seems people have no honor for the veterans who have lost their lives to preserve freedom and democracy.

    Had they not forgotten the reason they could protest? During World War II, soldiers from Allies countries gave their lives to prevent the spread of Nazism all over the world. Had the Nazis won, things would be a lot different nowadays. Also, in the War in the Middle East, the soldiers are cracking down terrorism. Because of them, Alquida has grown weaker and no longer stage "large" attacks against countries in the west.

    All in all, whatever your opinion about the war, at the very leat, have the decency to not protest or disrupt during times when people are mourning about the dead.

  10. Anon # 2,438.378 · 1148 days ago

    Possibly one of my favourite articles of the week. Anonymous could be a force for good but the jury is still out on whether they've recently done more harm than good in the long run re: Internet freedoms. I will wait and see (while campaigning for change in my own way).

    Kudos for the Hackers for Charity link.

  11. Homer Bufflekill · 1147 days ago

    Unfortunately, as Anonymous contributors mature and grow out of this phase, there is no shortage of folks earlier on the path of life to take their place - - kids who have not yet developed a sense of responsibility or morality beyond that fictionalized by Palahniuk and then pureed and spoon-fed to them by Fincher.

    Anonymous is a statistics problem. There are two billion internet users around the world. When was the last time you were even in a classroom of only thirty people that didn't have at least one asshole?

    To be fair though, not all assholes are members of Anonymous.

  12. Anonysomething · 1147 days ago

    Why the sudden rush by every news site in existence to cover anything posted on anonnews, then make a big deal of it's win/fail/illegallity/risks/realism/swarmlike nature. FFS this is the crowd that brought you lolcats and rick astley, how seriously do you think they actually take this.

    PS The origin of the term is from this vid: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DNO6G4ApJQY

  13. Mrs. W · 1146 days ago

    For American Anonymous with skills (particularly those who support WikiLeaks' philosophy), this also looks like a worthy project:
    http://sunlightlabs.com/

    "We focus on transparency- the idea that government can be more effective, more honest, and more accountable when it makes data about its process, operations, and influences available to the public."

  14. Anonymous · 1146 days ago

    Nah for real, you don't get it. You don't have to do anything even vaguely illegal to consider yourself Anonymous. I've met plenty of educated, intelligent people who work on getting protest permits, press releases, and maintaining and moderating forums, disseminating information, and other exclusively legal activities in Anonymous. I've also met people who maintain truly impressive bot nets.

    You do what you want to, whether that's protesting Scientology, "hacking" HBGary Federal (lol SQL injection and phishing), or trolling Habbo Hotel for the lulz and posting gore pictures on /b/.

  15. M.P. · 983 days ago

    Yes, Code new security measures. They actually have competitions and give out scholarships for preventing such attacks. You have the skills, welp, prove them and make money while you are at it.

    I get it. This is a bunch of script kiddies that think they are making a political statement... Yeah, by attacking the police that are the front lines dealing with real life crime. By hurting the users of Bank of America and Amazon who had nothing to do with the corporate decisions.

    Yeah, real heroes. Don't care who they frag as long as they make the 6 o'clock news.

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About the author

Paul Ducklin is a passionate security proselytiser. (That's like an evangelist, but more so!) He lives and breathes computer security, and would be happy for you to do so, too. Paul won the inaugural AusCERT Director's Award for Individual Excellence in Computer Security in 2009. Follow him on Twitter: @duckblog