Secretive “hacking collective” Anonymous often find themselves in the news. But what are they really, and what do we know about them?
The group can be best described as online activists – or “hacktivists” as they are often dubbed. They frequently target controversial entities like ISIS, the Westboro Baptist Church, the Church of Scientology, and even Donald Trump.
They are seen as anti-authoritarian, given their vigilante tactics, support of the WikiLeaks initiative and opposition to pro-copyright websites. They appear to lean to the left on social issues, often targeting those who stand in opposition to gay rights, and also often targeting fundamental religious organisations.
As you could guess by their name, they do not reveal their true identities; instead they bask in the anonymity that the Internet provides, going to great lengths to stop the authorities from tracking down their actual locations. When they do appear on camera, they wear Guy Fawkes masks, which have epitomised them since they shot into the limelight in 2008 when they targeted Scientology websites.
Despite their efforts to hide themselves from the authorities, many people who have been linked to attacks carried out by Anonymous have been arrested in various countries. However the group have continued with their activities despite these arrests.
Where did Anonymous come from?
It is widely recognised that the group found their origins at online bulletin board website 4Chan sometime around 2003. While it is not known for certain, most believe this is where the original (or founding members) met.
What do we know about the people behind it and how they work?
While many people have been arrested after being linked to activities associated with Anonymous, not much is known about the people who speak for the mysterious organisation. It is likely that its members live in various countries and cities across the world.
However given the anonymous nature of a group called Anonymous, anyone can purport to be working on their behalf, which can be confusing. In the past it has been clear that “the left hand hasn’t been talking to the right” – an inevitably given it’s such a mysterious organisation where the members themselves likely don’t know the true identities of fellow members.
This is compounded by the fact that Anonymous doesn’t appear to have any hierarchy of members, and purports to be leaderless, which is no surprise given their distaste to authority. It is unknown how the group elects to choose targets or how they choose to attack those targets.
Anonymous do have social media accounts associated with them which helps to make it clearer that it actually is the hacking group speaking (and not someone claiming to be them) when they do decide to publicly condemn or “declare war” on a particular person or group.
What do Anonymous actually do?
Anonymous often perform many common hacking techniques. Often these are DDOS attacks – Distributed Denial of Service attacks – which involves the group flooding certain websites with arbitrary information from a number of different computers under their control (likely via malware infections) which ultimately overwhelm those websites and take them offline.
Those tactics have been used on Scientology websites, Visa & Mastercard (where two people were arrested) and the Westboro Baptist Church.
Anonymous have also been instrumental in removing social media accounts associated with ISIS, using phishing tactics to access email accounts as well as gaining access to management accounts on websites and defacing them, as well as supporting – through various means – those protesting against authoritarian governments, including allowing the free exchange of information and fighting government censorship.
Anonymous – good or bad?
The intentions of Anonymous could be considered by many as honourable – especially their record for pro-gay rights and anti-extremism. But their tactics are questionable. They are, ultimately, online vigilantes, working outside of recognised authorities. Their methods are illegal and they – of course – are wanted by many countries for breaking many computer crime laws.
Whether they are ultimately a force for good or bad is one that is hotly contested.