Beware! Anonymous has become the Hello Kitty of hacktivism

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.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

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.

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