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Anonymous and the battle of Wikileaks

Supporter of WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, hold posters with his photo during a protest in front of the British Embassy in Madrid, Spain, Saturday, Dec. 11, 2010. WikiLeaks has been under intense pressure since it began publishing thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables, who is now in a British jail fighting extradition to Sweden on alleged sex crime charges. The protesters are wearing masks depicting anti-establishment figure from the movie 'V for Vendetta'.(AP Photo)

Shortly after 9.30am GMT on Wednesday 8th December the corporate website of MasterCard, the second biggest payment processing system on the planet, ground to a halt. Repeated attempts to access the site resulted in an error message. The official line was that MasterCard was “experiencing heavy traffic on its external corporate website” – an understatement. It soon became clear that the site had been subjected to
a large Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack, and that MasterCard had become the latest victim of Operation Payback.

Two days earlier, MasterCard announced that it would no longer process payments to Wikileaks, the organisation fronted and founded by Julian Assange which was dominating world headlines with its publication of leaked diplomatic cables.

DDoS attacks had already been targeted at the website of the Swedish prosecution service, which was in the process of pursuing Assange for alleged sexual offences. The day after the MasterCard attack, Operation Payback used a DDoS to try – and fail – to take down Amazon, which had stopped hosting Wikileaks on its servers.

Mainstream media outlets that had previously been reporting the diplomatic cable leaks themselves, struggled to keep up with the emerging facts about the attacks. Operation Payback had been launched by a group called Anonymous, labelled either hackers or hacktivists. Through various online communiqués, none of which could necessarily be verified as authentic announcements from high level representatives of the group, Anonymous said that the world’s first global cyber uprising had been launched.

The emerging conflict had all the hallmarks of an escalating war – with two groups defining the extreme edges of the battlefield, and the rest of us left in the middle. And while the hyperbole and apocalyptic rhetoric will almost certainly prove overblown, one thing is clear: the cold war over key principles about rights and responsibilities in the digital age has just gone hot, and everybody is being asked to pick a side. Only by understanding what these two sides are, and the issues involved, will we find the solutions that may define the 21st century.

On one side there are the established, naturally conservative powers that be: primarily governments and big business. On a simplistic level, they want control of information – particularly online – either because they need to be able to manage the flow into the public domain (in the case of diplomatic cables or war logs), or because the free flow of information makes it difficult or impossible for them to generate profit (as with music copyright groups and labels and paywall-erecting media organisations).

As embarassment increased over the release of US diplomatic cables through Wikileaks, this group went on the attack on multiple fronts. Joe Lieberman, chairman of the US Senate committee on homeland security, applied pressure to corporations that were in some way supporting Wikileaks. It was just 24 hours after being contacted by Lieberman’s staff that Amazon pulled its server support to the whistleblowing organisation (although Amazon denies the incidents were related). Even if other companies weren’t directly contacted, the message was clear: you’re either with us or against us – so choose. In this context, both MasterCard and Visa stopped accepting payments to Wikileaks.

The opposing side in this war are the ‘hacktivists’, an amorphous group who believe information on the internet should always be freely transferred, without censorship, and frequently without anybody making money from the exchange. The roots of this group can be found in 4chan, an imageboard website launched in October 2003 that is known for its aggressive opposition to censorship, the deliberately sick sense of humour of its users, and being the source of many internet memes (anybody who has been ‘rickrolled’, or tempted into opening an erroneously named video link that turns out to be  Rick Astley singing ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’, has 4chan to thank).

While primarily a place for like-minded souls to swap offensive jokes and plot pranks, 4chan is also home to genuine hackers – talented operators who, collectively, have been behind attacks on major websites. The motivations for these attacks can seem political – US white supremacist online broadcaster Hal Turner had his site taken down by a DDoS attack in 2006 – but actually tend to be more anti-establishment than cohesively ideological. In 2008, 4chan members managed to get the swastika symbol to the top of Google’s Hot Trends list (tracking the most popular search terms in the US) after one member asked the others to search for the HTML numeric character reference for it. 4chan has, until now, been more punk than politics.

4chan users do coalesce around the idea of free speech, and the free flow of information online – for one thing, it is what allows the boards to exist. And they thrive on the idea of collective action: that a gathering of willing online participants can bring down, even for a moment, the biggest corporations. Anonymous, being the default name for messageboard posters, became the label for these collective actions or attacks – not so much the name of an organisation as a nom de guerre for mass online activism.

If Anonymous can be said to have ‘members’, they congregate around 4chan and similar messageboards, and comm-unicate through them and ICR (Internet Chat Relay) channels – rendering them, as the name suggests, unidentifiable. And well before the Wikileaks saga, the commitment of these loosely affilated individuals to the free flow of information had resulted in concerted campaigns supporting freedom of speech. In 2008 YouTube took down a video of Tom Cruise extolling the virtues of his religion, allegedly at the behest of the Church of Scientology. Anonymous accused the Church Of Scientology of internet censorship and launched what become known as Project Chanology – a sustained campaign of DDoS attacks, prank calls and live protests (if you’ve ever seen a group of people holding placards and wearing the Guy Fawkes masks from ‘V for Vendetta’, that’s Project Chanology).

Wikileaks was a natural standard for this adhoc army to gather around, and when corporations were seen to be bowing to government pressure and abandoning their support for Assange’s organisation, Anonymous used well-practised tactics to make their opposition known.

Both the numbers and the technical sophistication of the group can be overestimated. Undoubtedly, skilled hackers exist in the 4chan circle (frequently operating for profit when not involved involved in pranks or politics). But DDoS is not necessarily hacking. In basic terms, a DDoS attack involves bombarding a website with more requests than it can handle at one time, causing it to collapse. This requires the creation of a ‘botnet’ – a network of computers that can be triggered to access the target site at the same time. Creating a botnet is usually an illegal act, as computers are co-opted into the network without their owners’ knowledge. In the case of the attacks on MasterCard and Amazon, individuals could willingly allow their computer to be part of the botnet by downloading software that was circulated on the messageboards and IRCs. The barriers to participation were lowered, and you didn’t need to be a hacker to be involved. It was the modern, digital equivalent of a sit-in.

“Mainstream media outlets struggled to keep up with the emerging facts about the attacks”

The nature of Anonymous was clouded by mainstream media organisations, which made the mistake of treating it like a structured, hierarchical organisation. Reporters looked for spokespeople and manifestos. It appears that there is a hardcore group at the centre of Anonymous who need to be involved in any attack for it to have a chance of success – because they’re more technically proficient, have more respect within the group when it comes to suggesting targets, or already have their own (illegal) botnets set up to throw behind an operation. But this isn’t a well-organised platoon that follows orders – it’s a gathering of people with shared ideas and an enthusiasm for the fight. The attacks on Wikileaks provided them with an unambiguous list of targets; somebody in the crowd shouted ‘attack’, and off they swarmed.

Here, analogies with physical protests are valid. Firstly, for the DDoS attacks to succeed, Anonymous needs the active participation of its members. And secondly, the high profile nature of the attacks led to mass media coverage which pushed their beliefs – that they saw governments and corporations in a supposedly free West essentially behaving no better than reviled regimes in China or the Middle East – up the news agenda.

But the anarchic, ad hoc, nebulous nature of these groups also makes them capricious and unpredictable. Several days after the MasterCard incident, an attack by a group called Gnosis on the US gossip site Gawker saw passwords hacked, stolen and disseminated across the internet. Gnosis emerged from the same messageboards, including 4chan, as Anonymous, and the attack seems to have been prompted by snarky comments posters on Gawker made about 4chan. Hacking user information in this case isn’t exactly in keeping with the free speech, freedom of information, anti-censorship, ethos. These hacktivists are, as their name suggests, anonymous, unelected, unaccountable, and with no clear manifesto.

In the Wikileaks example, the views of many members of the global public align with those of the small Anonymous group. If there is no alignment, though, the hacktivists don’t necessarily care. This is not a group that can be relied upon to police the internet.

The mere fact of the public support for attacks on corporate websites does however highlight how far governments and corporations have drifted out of touch on crucial issues around freedom of information. The powers that be have shown themselves to be paternalistic, secretive, self-interested, pro-censorship, and undemocratic. People applaud Operation Payback because it gives a voice to dissent where it otherwise seems stifled. People no longer trust the system.

Again, there are parallels between the digital and analogue worlds. The pressure is always on the existing dominant forces to create systems that work, otherwise history tells us that the system is resisted and eventually overthrown: it’s adapt or die. If a supposedly civilised, democratic system fails to allow the people to participate effectively, the people will find other ways to express their views.

So when the majority of the UK electorate votes for parliamentary candidates who say they won’t raise tuition fees, and then the resulting government votes through a rise in tuition fees, people protest. And when governments use bullying tactics to stop embarrassing information reaching the public domain, as Anonymous claimed was  the case with Amazon ditching Wikileaks (a claim Amazon denies, declaring that it had kicked Wikileaks out because it was not adhering to the company’s terms and conditions), then people support direct action such as Operation Payback.

The established system can then respond with draconian measures. Truncheons and kettling; threats of prosecution and leaning on corporations that, through their inaction, are supporting the enemy. But if we, the citzens, don’t view these actions as valid, there will always be ways to circumvent the official channels and protest. That could manifest itself as taking to the streets, or lending our PCs to a botnet attack.

We may not agree with either the conservative, established, information-hoarding powers or the unpredictable, aggressive hacktivists, but those two groups are leaving us little choice but to get involved. The no man’s land between these two groups is where most of us live, and where crucial decisions are going to be made and new structures built. As the web has accelerated so dramatically over the last decade, we have generally either failed to keep up or just decided not to pay attention – to what happens with our personal data, to what big companies and governments are doing online, and to what that means for us as individuals or societies.

Governments and corporations will instinctively resist any new systems, rules or regulations that reduce their control over the flow of information, data and money. The members of Anonymous and the denizens of 4chan will refuse to abide by any rules but their own. In between, we need to build structures that work – protecting our rights, and defining our responsibilities. It is now that we have to make decisions about what should be made public and what shouldn’t (whether that’s diplomatic cables or our own Facebook data), whether the internet should be open or closed, who has the power to make these decisions, and how the will of the public can be accounted for. As in the analogue world, we will have to decided what is legitimate protest and what is rioting; citizenship or vigilantism; even freedom-fighting or terrorism.

Wikileaks may eventually be supressed, but the ideas that drive it will not. The debate should not be defined by the actions of a small group of indivduals – whether they’re protestors or pranksters. But if governments do not make their next steps careful ones, they will be playing into the hands of Anonymous, and potentially undermining their own legitimacy in the process.

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