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Did Anonymous Hack Sony's PlayStation Network?

For a week, there were a lot of frustrated and angry gamers out there. Now, they're mostly worried. After the online PlayStation Network (PSN) had been down for a week, Sony finally came out yesterday and admitted that "user account information was compromised in connection with an illegal and unauthorized intrusion into our network."

For Sony, this is a nightmare scenario, as hackers could potentially have access to users' names, addresses, email addresses, PSN passwords, and possibly credit card information. Because a lot of people use the same passwords across multiples platforms/sites, that could be an incredibly lucrative haul for hackers.

Anonymous, an online collective which counts hacktivists as members and who achieved some fame for attacking MasterCard and PayPal after those companies distanced themselves from WikiLeaks, initially fell under suspicion. Bit of background: Anonymous grew out of the 4Chan imageboard -- a place where you get lolcats, anime, and a lot of porn. Many of the activists see themselves as digital Robin Hoods taking on the corporate hegemons of Sony, PayPal, et al.

In that spirit, earlier this month, Anonymous began its Operation Sony in solidarity with George Hotz, who was being sued by Sony after hacking the PlayStation 3 and then publishing some of the jailbreak information on the Internet. When Anonymous activists first struck, they managed to take down and the PlayStation Store, using their preferred tool of distributed denial of service attacks (DDOS).

The attacks broadened, as Nate Anderson at Ars Technica reported, with another branch of Anonymous tracking down personal details of Sony executives and their kids (known in Anonymous lingo as doxing).

So was Anonymous responsible?

Parmy Olson at Forbes says it's unlikely:

Did the collective then take another turn for the extreme, swiping the personal information and credit card details of millions of PlayStation Network users? Almost certainly no. Sony is citing an “unauthorized person” as stealing the data, suggesting this is the work of a single hacker, perhaps supported by one or two others.

Anonymous has already denied the most recent takedown of PSN. Or rather AnonOps, one branch of Anonymous, denied it, before adding that it was possible that other branches of Anonymous were responsible. And therein lies the central problem with Anonymous. Anonymous activists always take pains to point out how they speak only for themselves, not for the group. The activists will tell you that they are a diverse group and wouldn't like to be presumptuous enough to attribute a guiding ideology to the whole group. Fair enough.

But not speaking for the group cuts both ways, so when one branch of Anonymous gets up to deny their role, it's fairly meaningless -- like the pope denying that the IRA is responsible for a terrorist attack. If they're telling the truth, it is just evidence that those few people in that particular cluster of activists aren't responsible. There's also been talk of rogue elements or Anonymous-connected third parties being responsible, but that kind of misses the point: their leaderless, decentralized structure means that they are all essentially rogue elements. There is no "official Anonymous."

Anonymous as a movement (or a meme, or a subculture, or a hyper-consciousness, or whatever you want to call it) is evolving and increasingly split -- very broadly between those who want to focus on activism, for instance targeting Iranian regime sites or helping out Tunisian revolutionaries, and those just doing it for the lulz, purely for the fun of trolling and wreaking havoc on the Internet (true to their 4Chan roots). There has been a lot of debate among Anonymous activists about the Sony operation, with many aware of just how damaging (for their name) an attack which interferes with gamers' precious gaming could be.

Those splits are bitter and deep, although as blogger Cathy Fitzpatrick has pointed out, such talk of a movement divided is merely a distraction. (She's written some highly critical and fascinating posts on Anonymous at Wired State.)

Groups like Anonymous are important because these weak-tied, decentralized networks represent one future of online activism -- they can wield huge amounts of power, scale quickly, and have the potential to be pretty effective. But they're also a great example of the limitations of flat, leaderless organizations to actually agree on anything or carry out campaigns with efficiency and responsibility. As Mary C. Joyce points out in a recent post, "the extreme egalitarianism of the flat network seems to be driving down effectiveness. Even an organization with porous boundaries does not have unlimited resources, and those human resources are being diluted by too many campaigns, such that each campaign cannot recruit enough people to carry out all the tasks necessary for success."

In terms of responsibility and credibility, why would an activist want to be connected with a movement which has been accused of attacking an epilepsy forum, when they could sign up for Amnesty or instead?

So did Anonymous do it? No idea. It could be a sophisticated criminal hack, using the ongoing Anonymous operation as cover. It could also be an Anonymous-linked hacker, intending to disrupt (with a consequence being that data has been compromised), who for whatever reason, is keeping quiet about what he/she has done. Regardless it certainly doesn't look good for Sony for taking so long to reveal the extent of the attack and, judging by opinions in gamer forums, whether they are involved in this latest attack or not, Anonymous's credibility could also suffer.