The problem with Anonymous.. it doesn't know who it is

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order

AnonymousAnonymity can have its drawbacks.

If your movement has no defined leadership, no structure, no way for people to officially become members, and tries to make a positive about the fact that anyone can claim to be a part of it.. then it's very hard to define what's done in the name of the movement and what isn't.

I've spoken to countless journalists and security commentators who have a nightmare trying to report anything to do with Anonymous, because.. well.. how do you know that something was really done by Anonymous, and not just someone who has chosen to wave that flag?

Take last week's hack of Britain's largest single abortion provider, for instance, by a hacker who identified himself as being part of "Anonymous".

BPAS defaced website

As we reported news of the hacker's arrest and subsequent confession in court, we were inundated with messages claiming that the hack had nothing to do with Anonymous.

But as Naked Security reader "Mrs W" commented, it's not easy to be so cut and dry about that:

If an organization has no membership roles and no leader, then anyone can claim to be part of them. You can't arbitrarily decide they're acting independently just because you want to distance the group from the act that was committed.

It doesn't take a village to hack a website. No doubt other hacks in the name of Anonymous were perpetrated in similar solitary fashion.

This guy has ties to Anonymous, and he claims to be Anonymous. Isn't that about all you can say of any of them? And if that's not enough, what would someone need to do to prove they are acting on behalf of the group?

My hunch is that the majority of Anonymous supporters wouldn't have approved of the website hack, and certainly not the threat to release details of people who had contacted the British Pregnancy Advisory Service about terminating their pregnancies.

Tweets related to BPAS hack

Anonymous hackers have done some pretty nasty stuff in the past, putting innocent individuals at risk and not caring about their welfare in their desire to embarrass or expose businesses or government organisations, but the attack against the abortion service doesn't seem to fit with the normal model.

But a movement which embraces chaos and lack of structure can't have it both ways.

If you're going to let anyone wave the Anonymous flag, if you have no structure that allows an "official" view to be communicated, then you have to accept that you have no more right than the BPAS hacker to decide what can and cannot be done in the name of your movement.

In short, Anonymous doesn't know who it is. And can't know who it is. Because it's made of countless different individuals, all of whom have their own opinions and beliefs about what Anonymous is and what it should be.

Sure, there are Twitter accounts and some websites that attempt to present themselves as semi-official channels for communication by the Anonymous collective, but ultimately they are controlled by a handful of individuals - and are unlikely to represent accurately the wide spectrum of viewpoints belonging to Anonymous participants.

Four chapsRight now, any spod can buy his "V for Vendetta" mask, make a video in his back bedroom announcing that they're going to bring down Facebook in a month's time, distort their voice and upload it to YouTube.

There are some in the media who will report this as a genuine threat from Anonymous, planning to do something bad. But, frankly, it can't be taken seriously unless or until something actually happens.

Similarly, a tweet from an "official" Anonymous Twitter claiming a threatened attack isn't officially sanctioned should be similarly treated with derision. After all, in an anonymous movement, how can a semi-official Twitter account possibly know or not - with absolute certainty - if other supporters don't have such a plan.

Ultimately, you can't believe anything when it comes to Anonymous.

And I think that's something of a problem for the movement as it tries to communicate what it believes in, and what it wants to change about the world.

Image of four computer enthusiasts courtesy of Shutterstock.

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21 Responses to The problem with Anonymous.. it doesn't know who it is

  1. Paulc · 1305 days ago

    "But, frankly, it can't be taken seriously unless or until something actually happens."

    If only we could apply that logic to the trainwreck that has become the aviation security industry...

  2. Jan Doggen · 1305 days ago

    Right on the spot.
    So now we have 'Anonymous' threatening to bring down the (all) DNS servers, which is hardly believable.

    See Security now episode 341 Can “Anonymous” Take Down the Internet?

  3. Guest · 1305 days ago

    It's a belief, idea and message they are conveying...they maybe youths but they understand the injustices in the system in our world today. Maybe the next generation needs no leadership, no power structure but a voice and a common goal. With current technology we have today, especially social media. Decisions and ideas can be agreed upon instant proxy voting with out a necessary leader. Do I need a leader to tell me how to live my life?

    We live in world with power structure that is misused and abused. Among the powerful in the world (Politicians/Corporations) I have yet to see exemplary leaders who've truly made any changes have truly trickled down the to common people. Who cares if the they are organized or not? Obviously they are not going away or ever plan to. This article is so opinionated as much as mainstream media.

    They may seem like misguided youth...but you forget one thing. They believe in something...which is fighting against our modern system that so many of you cling on to. Our world is not right...and they are want to change it some way or form. Reckless youths they are...however they are face of the youth that is growing up in the world. And to you that threatens your current ideology. As they see the world a unsafe place with war, starvation and social injustices.

    Funny how this article was written by a stooge who works for a corporation.

    • Mrs. W · 1305 days ago

      A common set of goals and some ethical standards might earn more respect.

      Outing private citizens' personal information in order to embarrass corporations and governments is collateral damage I just can't abide.

      I, too, believe the system is sick, but I don't think DDoSing and hacking a bunch of websites is really going to change that. And the legal penalties make it even less worth it. But if the only tool you have is a hammer, I suppose every problem looks like a nail to you.

      Anonymous creates chaos because they don't like the current system, but do they have a vision for a new system other than "Not this"?

    • soshimo · 1305 days ago

      Graham isn't a stooge. Besides, we all suck on the corporate teat in one way or another. Unless you happen to live a completely self sufficient lifestyle, which you don't because you are on a computer, built by, guess what - a corporation. So get off the "corporations suck" high horse, unless you plan on living in a cave for the next century.

      • NegativeOne · 1304 days ago

        Corporations do 'suck,' as you say. But it's our governments that allow them to suck, not being regulated properly, turning the other cheek and being completely blind to multinational companies building their empires on the backs of the poor and those in poverty, simply to give the end consumer the delusion that there is no other way for them to get a $10 toaster other than to have some one living in a slum in a foreign country make it. There is no equality in our society only large gaps between the richest 1% of the world, and the rest of us. Anonymous obviously wants change, but like the majority feel powerless, protesting is really a thing of the past, being the change you want to see in the world, seems the only way forward in this day and age.

    • Lateral · 1305 days ago

      How do you know they're young or what they stand for?


    • Mike · 1305 days ago

      I think the issue that Graham is trying to make here is that they do not have a common goal.

      Some of them are working towards a change in the systems of power that are negatively affecting the common people, but others are doing it for the lulz, or as part of a personal crusade against abortion, pornography, the police, the fbi, big companies, internet security companies, neo-nazis, newbie anonymous members, KISS, Banks, Financial Institutions, The UN, Toronto, El Salvador ....

      How can a group be united behind common goals if they have a member that idolizes Pablo Escobar (I doubt @PabloEscobarSec is reffering to anyone other than the infamous Colombian Drug lord) and they are running 'anti-Zetas' operations ?

      The truth is that more change has been achieved by the onymous who signed petitions, turned up to protests and made their voices heard than by an increasingly diluted group. I agree that the times are screaming for change, and that the Internet is a powerful tool to harness to effect change. I am fine with a group trying to use the Internet to make change happen.
      Committing crimes and justifying it as a form of protest is not the way. If Ddos attacks where the virtual equivalent of a "sit in" protest, the current trend towards doxing must be break and enter, vandalism, distribution of stolen property, endangerment, etc.

      I admire the passion but urge you to take it to the next level, if the I don't need a leader why do I need to use a pseudonym to express myself.

    • Nigel · 1302 days ago

      The torrent of superficial assumptions, ill-conceived ideas, meaningless platitudes, and downright idiocies in your post, dear Guest, pegs the Incomprehensibility Meter™. I sincerely hope for your sake that you're the naive, desperately confused adolescent you appear to be. If you have managed to reach adulthood with such a principle-free set of self-contradictory beliefs, I recommend that you seek the help of a mental health professional as soon as possible. Really. You're in deep trouble, my friend.

  4. wibble · 1305 days ago

    It could also be a useful tool for less respectable governments wishing to trump up minor charges against someone. Simply accuse them of belonging to Anonymous, and throw in a suggestion that Anonymous are engaged in terrorist behaviour. Can you prove you're not a member of Anonymous?

  5. Richard · 1305 days ago

    '... his "V for Vendetta" mask ...'
    Or "Guy Fawkes mask", as it used to be known before the MPAA bought the rights to our history.

  6. Andrew Berry · 1305 days ago

    This is a direct result of the abominable treatment of Julian Assange by the United States government (and the cowardice and political expediency shown by my government, and others), insofar as traditional lateral and hierarchical structures are dismissed, in favor of a more cellular organizational structure: so if 10,000 people claim to be members of a given organization, then 10,000 people become suspects, which means that the workload on a given monitoring body becomes enormous, and profiling becomes more generalized, and heuristic in nature, leading to the inevitable intelligence loopholes and discrepencies.

  7. Ocean Midge · 1305 days ago

    Anonymous is everyone and noone, simultaneously. If they want to wave the flag over something they've done, cool. But there's no point poring over the niceties of the modus operandii or intention of any action in an attempt to ascertain whether something was 'genuinely' from Anonymous. It doesn't need a structure, leaders, a goal, an aim or anything like that. More than anything it's just an expression of solidarity with those who want to effect change in the world, regardless of what that change is. Which is all quite funny, as the name simply stemmed from a bunch of imageboard users posting in a section that didn't have a login system.

    • Mrs. W · 1304 days ago

      If they're really about effecting change, no matter what that change is, they're pretty lousy at it.

      If you were serious about changing the world, you'd study what other people have written on the subject, learn from your mistakes, and create your own manifestos on effective methods and share them widely.

      Contrast Anonymous with Cognitive Policy Works, whose stated mission is to "bring powerful insights from the cognitive and behavioral sciences to practitioners working to deliver progressive social change all over the world."

      If Anonymous were serious about change, don't you think their methods would reflect that? Try again.

      • Guest · 1299 days ago

        Real change is not going to come from technocratic policy wonks. Sorry. That sort of thinking has never brought real change, but it brings in good salaries to people who think they are part of "the change" which will result in them spending the rest of their life "toiling in the trenches, slowly changing the system from within" only to realize nothing has or will change sort of dramatic bursts of societal transformation that stem from fundamental changes in the zeitgeist.

  8. Steve · 1304 days ago

    This article is spot on.

    When you have an organisation that anyone can be a part of, claim to speak and act for, and claims to have no leaders the result can be somewhat Schizophrenic .
    So we have a situation where the organisation that hacks the vatican for its conservative views on abortion among other things and someone else from the same organisation hacks an anti abortion website.

    Someone can claim to be planning to hack facebook in the name of anonymous, and then one of the organisation's twitter feeds says an attack on facebook was "not authorised by anonymous".

    In an organisation without leaders the concept of "authority" to "authorise" something is meaningless, unless they really do have leaders despite their claim that they do not.

  9. Cliff Jones · 1304 days ago

    Mr. Cluley,

    I truly appreciate your writings, you are one of the levelest heads in the blogosphere when it comes to subject matter you cover. Thank you.

    Cliff Jones

  10. Mike · 1303 days ago

    You're half there Graham, but take that idea to its logical conclusion.

    It's surprising that people are still struggling to understand what "Anonymous" is. Anonymous isn't a movement. It's not a group. It's not a collective. There is no 'it'. Anonymous is an adjective that some people choose to use, to effectively declare that whatever they're doing isn't for the purposes of fame or ego. *That* is the only unifying factor.

    You're wasting your time trying to look for things like:
    Shady underground irc channels - a few small pockets of people who quite literally are not anonymous do not at all speak for anyone other than themselves.
    Twitter "communication channels" - There's no group, so how can there be anyone speaking or acting on behalf of it?
    Leaderships - If you're anonymous, how can you be leader? How do people know who their leader is if he doesn't use anything to identify himself with? Just look at the widespread anger over some moron calling himself "Sabu" who ironically was acting on behalf of an adjective which didn't even apply to himself. How can you be anonymous if you're referring to yourself as "Sabu"? There is no primary key in the Anonymous membership database.

    The 'group' that you see is simply a number of people who don't wish to identify themselves, rallying around a specific cause. This 'group' dramatically changes with each cause. The rallying is done on forums (such as somethingawful) and image boards (such as 4chan). Some causes (eg. the abortion clinic hack) would have a very low number of supporters, while others (eg. anti-SOPA) would correspondingly have a much larger number.

    I know it will take a while for journalists and bloggers (including yourself Graham) to wrap your head around the concept because for so long hacking has been about ego. Back in the 90s and early 00's, you had 'clans' and when a hack was done, it was to show off your skill{s|z}. The new trend of attributing hacks to 'Anonymous' symbolises that it's moved from this childish, egotistical wankery into political activism.

    Attributing a hack to "Anonymous" is simply a way of saying "the message is more important than the individual." But of course, in the true anti-anonymous egotistical style, journalists and bloggers don't care about the message, because its not theirs. They just want someone to attribute it to.

    • Guest · 1299 days ago

      Another issue is that when people talk about the Anonymous 'collective' and then talk about how they are mystified that the organization claims to have no leaders reveals how far behind the times they are when it comes to understanding countercultural movements... like, 40 years behind the times. It is quite possible to have a non-organization organization, composed of no fixed membership, that is structured as what activists call an affinity group... the VERY PRINCIPLE that Anonymous is unified behind is libertarianism (disdain for authority, although the image-boards from which Anon springs from tend to be right-libertarian, the actual hacktivists have always tended to be left-libertarian.) even I, who know little about computers, understand this and have understood this since I was in high school. Persons who perhaps grew up in the 50s era or the 80s era or any other time when disdain for activism was the norm (like the 2000s Facebook generation) perhaps wouldn't understand it.

  11. I think its funny that you think that caring about such little things is going to make things different. Obviously the people in Anon don't very much give two craps about what others think or do, and they seem to police themselves very well. I'm sure dude got some grief for his hack, and is probably not associating himself with Anon anymore. Maybe he is, maybe he is a she.. Maybe this is no one, maybe its someone.. I mean seriously you wrote a story off a tweet. Did you ever talk to the person behind the tweet? If not, then stop trying to project your idea of what a "group" is on to what is in reality, just a gross representation of a "state of being". haha dumb.. divide and conquer will not work.. there is nothing to divide, and no one you can point at to conquer.. so just stop.. and let it be..

  12. Tom Bombadil · 841 days ago

    This isn't the 'problem'. It's the reason it is effective.

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About the author

Graham Cluley runs his own award-winning computer security blog at, and is a veteran of the anti-virus industry having worked for a number of security companies since the early 1990s. Now an independent security analyst, he regularly makes media appearances and gives computer security presentations. Follow him on Twitter at @gcluley