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Anonymous 'Leader' Quits. Is Barrett Brown The Next Julian Assange?

Barrett Brown
Barrett Brown
One of the few public faces of the hacktivists' collective Anonymous has quit the group. It's not much of a surprise. Since the attack on Sony (which most Anonymous activists deny) the group has been in disarray, with various factions taking down each other’s websites, battling over their chat channels, and “doxing” -- revealing each other’s identities online.

Brown had risen to prominence, first as a sympathetic journalist covering the group, then as someone more clearly self-identified with Anonymous (given Anonymous's amorphous structure, self-identification is all it takes to be a part of it.) He wrote articles for "The Guardian" and "The Huffington Post" saying things like this: "Anonymous hacktivists will continue to bring down the hypocrisy and tyranny of those who prefer state to citizen and the status quo to true liberty."

Others in Anonymous, however, objected to Brown taking the limelight. Anonymous activists tend to shun leadership and revealing their true identities: in Anonymous parlance such behavior is known as "namefagging" (the sufix "fag" or "fagging" are used often in various Anonymous designations).

The recent splits have once again shown that decentralized networks eschewing leadership sound OK on paper, but in practice suffer from the usual problems, namely human egos and decision-making by committee. Regardless, there have been plenty of reports that Anonymous' leaderless ethos was a charade anyway. A recent piece in "Technology Review" makes the same point:

In an interview with U.K. tech-news site thinq, Ryan and friends dismissed any notion that the site functions leaderlessly. "There is a hierarchy," said Ryan, singling out a core group of 10 fellow moderators who meet regularly in a private chat channel and, he claimed, effectively decide what sites and causes the group will take aim at next. "All the power ... it's in that channel," he said, insisting further that his only intention in shutting down the network was to break up that power by breaking Anonymous's reliance on AnonOps as a communications venue.

Although as the piece points out, the fluidity and organizational elements aren't necessarily mutually exclusive and can -- and do -- coexist (albeit uneasily).

As I blogged a few weeks ago, the group is also divided about tactics and targets. (Roughly, it's split between those who want to attack political targets and those who just want to cause havoc on the Internet, true to their prankish roots on the 4Chan imageboard.)

But back to Brown. He seems to be styling himself as the next Julian Assange. From Threatpost:

Brown told Threatpost that he and around two dozen Anonymous members are forming a splinter group to focus on efforts to root out what Brown has described as "criminality and corruption" within the U.S. Government, U.S. military, corporations and the media.

He said he planned to focus on Project PM -- an effort to create an umbrella group that will support other organizations that want to expose pro-government and pro-corporate bias in the media.

Looking at the Project PM website, it's a bit of a hodgepodge:

[W]e'd like to improve the distribution of accurate and informative news, couple journalists with scientists in order to make useful information more readily available to the masses, and to help develop undeveloped regions of Africa with as much efficiency as attainable. Since the ultimate goal of Project PM is to best utilize information technology along with our collective knowledge base to better the world in every aspect possible, we plan on increasing the number of sub-projects we undertake as our membership and capabilities expand.
And this video doesn't really clear things up.

But Assange also came from these amorphous roots. He wasn't taken seriously until the Collateral Murder release and then, all of a sudden, he was the most recognizable man in the world. If you read this profile of Brown in "D Magazine," there are clear parallels with Assange: a broken home, interrupted education, a fierce independent streak, a conspiratorial mind, and a clear desire to be in the limelight. They both like to see themselves (in Assange's case, with some justification) as plucky digital outlaws taking on the Internet’s evil corporate and state overlords.

Karen Lancaster says her son developed a capacity for moral outrage at an early age. “He was furious when he was 6 and found out there was no Santa Claus,” she says. “He wasn’t mad about there not being a Santa. He was upset with me. He said, ‘You lied to me. How could you make up such a story?’

Lancaster says her son had severe ADD and that the classroom was torture for him. But he read voraciously on his own, diving into Ayn Rand and Hunter S. Thompson while he was still in middle school.

About that time, Brown also began investigating the possibilities of online networks. This was circa 1995, before the internet as we know it today existed. Back then, bulletin board systems ruled, chat rooms with their own phone numbers for dial-up access with a modem. At 13, Brown found a BBS that changed his life. It enabled him to talk to girls. Years later, he would use the experience as grist for an essay in the New York Press.

According to Brown he'll be on Al-Jazeera on May 19 to " to discuss Anonymous and reveal details of a newly-discovered U.S. surveillance program." It will be interesting to see what he has. (Brown has claimed to have a copy of the Stuxnet virus, which crippled much of Iran's nuclear program.) The troubling question with hacktivist types like Brown and Assange is always how they obtained the information: was it leaked or was it stolen?