Beware! Anonymous has become the Hello Kitty of hacktivism

Beware! Anonymous has become the Hello Kitty of hacktivism

Summary: If you think hacktivists are a problem now, just wait. The tools are becoming increasingly easy to use, and the hacktivists increasingly stupid — making everyone a target.

TOPICS: Security

Apparently, last week's hack of an Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) website wasn't an "official" operation by Anonymous inasmuch as anything about that un-organisation can be said to be official — but just a lone hacktivist jumping on the bandwagon. Still, some 50,000 innocent bystanders had their personal data exposed as mere collateral damage. Expect to see many more such incidents.

Anonymous isn't the be-all and end-all of hacktivism, of course — especially when you look beyond the English-speaking world. It doesn't even have a coherent political purpose. But it's certainly the most powerful brand. And that's precisely why it'll continue to attract attention and inspire copycats.

TV news usually has trouble reporting on hackers because there aren't any pictures beyond the usual clichés of fingers on keyboards, blinking Ethernet switches, and scrolling log files. Anonymous solves that problem with its suit-without-a-head logo and the mask that everyone half remembers from some derivative B-grade movie. That, combined with the air of mystery, means that coverage is guaranteed.

The media has also helped boost Anonymous' brand appeal by describing them as "domestic terrorists" and listing them, as Time did last year, as one of the world's 100 most influential people.

Meanwhile, Anonymous' political aims have become so broad that anyone can play. From the original Project Chanology against the Church of Scientology in 2008, it has extended through various anti-censorship and anti-surveillance campaigns to encompass the vaguely anti-capitalist Occupy movement and fighting far right-wing politicians, Mexican drug cartels, paedophiles, and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation.

In short, Anonymous has become a media-friendly brand that can be adapted to any purpose. Just like Hello Kitty.

Well-branded protest movements have always attracted those in search of life purpose and an adrenalin rush. Anonymous seems almost purpose built. On the weekend, an interview with @AnonyOps, who has more than 200,000 followers on Twitter, revealed much of this psychology — perhaps more than they'd intended.

"I write code all day... In my free time? I sit and stew about state powers and mass surveillance of innocent people, attempts at censorship, and general tyranny. These things put gas in my tank," they said.

Deciding to live tweet the Personal Democracy Forum in 2010 as they watched the live video stream, just days after joining Twitter, was a light-bulb moment. "I tweeted, and after about a minute of tweeting at them, they mentioned me in their video feed. That was an interesting moment for me. It's when I realised that this thing — this mask of Anonymous — could have power ... I felt I had a platform with which to speak, possibly for the first time in my life," they said.

"Live tweeting something being streamed live online is still my favourite Twitter experience. It's a rush. It was a bigger rush than some of the hacking I did as a teenager."

This political coming-of-age story might be endearing, but I find the combination of political naivety and the rush of discovering previously unknown power disturbing. In the year since the arrest of key members of LulzSec, the Anonymous offshoot, last February, its approach has become increasingly scattergun. Israeli information security researcher Tal Be'ery noted that hacktivists choose targets of opportunity, with a justification figured out after the fact. Even the non-organisation's unofficial spokesperson Barrett Brown lamented that Anonymous is crippled, the political discussion "not what it was like a year ago, more than a year ago" — before he, too, was arrested in September.

Meanwhile, we've seen such poorly targeted attacks as Anonymous protesting the data-retention proposals of Australia's federal government by hacking random servers belonging to a state government. It made much of a database file with "DSD" in its name, oblivious to the fact that in Queensland, that stands not for Defence Signals Directorate, Australia's equivalent to the US National Security Agency, but Department of State Development. And now we've had last week's copycat protesting against an extremist politician exercising his right to free speech by making victims of the audience of a TV program about happiness.

On the same ABC TV program that reported last week's hack, we saw footage of a protest against fluoride in drinking water — including one protester in a Guy Fawkes mask. No, Anonymous isn't the be-all and end-all of hacktivism, but it is the brand of choice. As that brand becomes ever more politically incoherent, and with hacking tools at everyone's fingertips, it can't be long before every dentist is at risk.

Topic: Security


Stilgherrian is a freelance journalist, commentator and podcaster interested in big-picture internet issues, especially security, cybercrime and hoovering up bulldust.

He studied computing science and linguistics before a wide-ranging media career and a stint at running an IT business. He can write iptables firewall rules, set a rabbit trap, clear a jam in an IBM model 026 card punch and mix a mean whiskey sour.

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  • :)

    First I quote
    "The tools are becoming increasingly easy to use, and the hacktivists increasingly stupid — making everyone a target."
    Then I quote:
    "and the mask that everyone half remembers from some derivative B-grade movie."

    Since we are talking about the mask and the role for which Hugo Weaving took an Oscar in 2006, then I believe that I am in my right to say:

    "The writing is becoming increasingly easy to abuse, and the journalist increasingly stupid — making everyone a ... well I do not know what."

    I hope my comment is not too harsh. If it is - please delete it, but do not put a B grade on one of the best moves of your own country's industry.

    I am not a hacker. I am not related to anonymous. I make pure assumptions and I would not like to be invasively checked on every airport.
    • If the biggest issue you have...

      is that the author improperly cast "V for Vendetta" as a "B" grade movie, so what? I think the actual content of the article is top-notch. Seemingly random DOS and other hacking attacks DO make the initiators simply vandals defacing the digital landscape, and potentially doing more serious damage by leaving the metaphorical gates open for other criminals. Thank you, Stilgherrian!
    • I thought the exact same thing...

      Here I am, pondering whether some of Anonymous' nobler efforts compensate their sometimes childish tactics, when suddenly:
      "Anonymous solves that problem with its suit-without-a-head logo and the mask that everyone half remembers from some derivative B-grade movie"
      "from some derivative B-grade movie"
      "B-grade movie"

      So much nerd rage... ;)
  • Seriously...

    A guy who could't run an IT business and Can't break into mainstream journalism is going to tell us that hackers are stupid and the movie V sucks?

    Does anyone review this site? It feels like facebook. Anybody with a keyboard can now post anything they want without any need for research, facts or credibility.
    • Case in point: your posts

  • They should attack Hello Kitty

    Now there's a real target.
    • Hello Kitty Hax U,375x360.png

      We haz your treasure booty.
  • Directionless Is Not A Problem

    Since what we are dealing with is systemic it matters little where you go, especially if you are talking about government or corporate sites. You see, in a fascist frenzy there is little difference or no difference between corporations and government. The abuse is so widespread it is little a haystack of needles without having to find a needle in the haystack. Soon there will be an awakening, a collective consciousness - a sort of AI without the artificial element, when the populace suddenly realizes that everything is a joke, and they are the brunt of the joke - to the benefit of a moneyed few. Watch for it, expect us, growth is exponential in a collective group of suppressed people - it never forgives and it will never forget.
  • The problem is...

    ...if large corporations and public figures can be targeted, so can anyone else. We might all think we're too obscure for anyone to care about us, but that's no guarantee that someone won't declare us to be enemies worthy of special treatment.

    DOS is harrassment, not legitimate protest.
    John L. Ries
    • Or by accident

      your company/personal site is hacked. Or, by attacking the big bad businesses or governments, YOUR personal data are taken. Not something to be taken lightly!
  • Anarchic

    Populist, leaderless movements aren't often clearly directed; that's anarchy at work. Anonymous feels rather like the 'Bolshevik threat' of the 1920s when mass unrest in response to social change wasn't a named group people could understand but a faceless, anonymous movement.

    But I'm going to complain about calling V for Vendetta derivative too ;) when Alan Moore wrote the original comics back in the 80s the mask image he came up with was both striking - and a really interesting response to the typical superhero costume. The mask becoming a marketing phenomenon because of the film and then being 'taken back' by a protest movement (however nebulous) is both ironic and a testament to the power of having a strong image...
  • This article is nonsense

    Anonymous is anything but "politically incoherent". Their actions are based on things that they find objectionable, e.g. abuse of power, which the author apparently has trouble understanding because it's not how traditional political groups operate. If Anonymous truly were incoherent surely it would be advocating multiple inconsistent things, and surely this article would point to at least one instance -- which it does not. Attempting to dismiss Anonymous on grounds which are far more applicable to both U.S. political parties simply shows a reactionary outlook.
    Rohan Jayasekera