Who is Anonymous?

They are Legion: A Look at One of the Internet’s Most Infamous Hacker Groups

Photo from Twitter

If you’ve seen any police detective crime show, you know there is always going to be one member of the team who is “the hacker.” The one who can seemingly crack into any type of computer security, usually just in time to stop whatever evil plan the murderer of the week has in store. Real life hackers may not usually find themselves in such life-or-death situations, but the things they can do often seem like they are straight out of a TV show.

The most famous (and, without a doubt, the most powerful) “hacktivist” group is Anonymous. Emerging from the website 4chan in 2003, the group has become famous, or infamous, for engaging in organized campaigns against everything from the controversial Church of Scientology and Paypal to ISIS and Donald Trump. In order to understand what the group’s motives are, one first has to understand where they came from: 4chan. 4chan is a rather infamous message board where people can post images and comments about things that interest them with topics ranging from the My Little Pony television show to foreign policy. What makes 4chan different than other social media platforms such as Reddit, Facebook, or Tumblr is that, whereas on those sites at least a username is needed in order to post or comment, on 4chan, that doesn’t exist. You post and then leave with no accountability. You’re just a face in a crowd; you're completely anonymous. 

It was in this environment that the idea of Anonymous could grow. The thing about 4chan is that it's not for the faint of heart or the easily offended. No accountability means no veneer of decency, with many posters on the board trying their hardest to offend others. In the beginning years, Anonymous was little more than a collection of the more proactive of these offenders going out and doing what amounted to little more than online vandalism. The most well-known of these early activities (“raids” as they are called now), was an incident in which members of Anonymous would all log onto an online game at the same time and disrupt the normal users from having access to certain features. These things were certainly annoying, but not really noteworthy in any way. 

It wasn’t until 2008, a full five years after the group’s founding, that they really entered into the public consciousness. In January of that year, Gawker posted the now infamous video of actor Tom Cruise talking about his love for the Church of Scientology. The Church then responded with a cease-and-desist notice to Gawker. In retaliation for the apparent censorship, Anonymous launched a raid. Over the course of the raid, the Scientology hotline was full of prank callers, thousands of black faxes were sent to Church offices, and DDoS attacks designed to shut down Scientology websites by overloading the server with requests were sent. Perhaps the thing that was most notable about the attack was, for the first time, thousands of Anonymous members took to the streets to protest against something. Many wore the now iconic Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta, and since then the mask has become synonymous with Anonymous.

One of the other famous raids took place in 2010 when, after the releasing of tens of thousands of classified documents by the organization WikiLeaks, companies such as Paypal, MasterCard, and Visa - under pressure from the US government - cut off the ability for their users to donate to WikiLeaks. In response, Anonymous launched concentrated attacks against all three companies and managed to disrupt service for all three companies for two days in December of 2010. 

True social justice warriors, Anonymous was also a huge supporter of the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2012 and has done work to raise aid for those impacted by natural disasters. They have also improved awareness over issues such as homelessness.

But before you order a Guy Fawkes mask and prepare to wage war against the cooperate overlords, there are a few things to consider. The first and foremost is that what Anonymous does, for the most part, is illegal. While things like prank calls and sending black faxes are annoying and mischievous, the main weapon of Anonymous - the DDoS attack - is very illegal, and people have been arrested by the FBI for doing it. For example, the people who wanted to get in on the fun of attacking Scientology back in 2008 would download the tools to launch a DDoS attack provided by the other members of Anonymous and just fire it up without first protecting their IP address, making it very easy for the authorities to find and arrest them later. Why would one member of Anonymous do that to another, you might ask? Well, many things are important to Anonymous: freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and justice for people over government and cooperation. But above all else, they love fun, and if getting people arrested is part of their fun, they are going to do it.

Donald Trump vs Anonymous

One of the more recent targets of Anonymous is Presidential hopeful Donald Trump. Trump is certainly an incendiary candidate and that has gotten the attention of some in the hacking group. But, even as some members of the hacking group try to do their best to sabotage the campaign, they are being met with stiff resistance by those who either believe that even Donald Trump’s First Amendment rights need to be protected or by those who want to see Trump elected for the sheer entertainment value. Even if all of Anonymous was dedicated to attacking Trump, there are reservations about how much impact on the election they would have. Paypal is one thing; the US government is another. Messing with a leading candidate’s website or ability to raise funds is a big deal, and I’m not sure how many people are willing to go to jail to see Trump slightly inconvenienced. But that may be grossly underestimating the men in the masks. As time has proved, they could very well bring down the entire campaign.

Anonymous is a controversial group. Supporters call them champions of the people and virtual Robin Hoods, while detractors say they are cyber bullies who are only brave behind their keyboards. Either way, the impact they have caused on modern American society cannot be questioned, and it doesn’t look like they are going anywhere anytime soon. If you’re a big company that oversteps its bounds, a government that hurts its civilians, or an oppressive religion, their motto is something to keep in mind; “We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.”