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

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.”)