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What Is 'Anonymous' And How Does It Operate?

The Anonymous "logo"
The Anonymous "logo"
On February 28, Interpol announced it had arrested 25 suspected members of the international hacker group Anonymous.

The arrests, carried out in more than a dozen cities in Europe and Latin America, resulted in the confiscation of hundreds of pieces of computer equipment, mobile phones, credit cards, and cash. (It also was followed by an apparent attack on Interpol's website.)

The suspects, reportedly aged between 17 and 40, were believed to be planning coordinated cyberattacks against institutions including Colombia's Defense Ministry and presidential websites.

With such sweeps against suspected Anonymous members becoming increasingly common, RFE/RL offers a FAQ sheet on this shadowy organization.

What is Anonymous?

Anonymous is a loosely organized international movement of online activists who share similar social and political ideals. Anonymous says it promotes access to information, free speech, and transparency, and also supports various anticorruption and antiauthoritarian movements.

How does the group operate?

The group is generally perceived as anarchic, with no controlling leadership. Basically, individual members make their own decisions and relay their protest ideas and activities to one another via social media. If those ideas and activities gather enough support in that community, a collective agreement is made, dates and virtual “meeting times” are set, and participants proceed to launch a campaign to accomplish whatever goal they’ve set out to achieve.

Members of Anonymous say it’s easy to join the group. Just hide your identity while conducting your online activities and you’re in. Because of the complex, informal and, of course, anonymous nature of the group, it’s not really possible to establish an accurate demographic on its membership.

What kind of activities is Anonymous known for?

The group is associated with collaborative hacking activities (“hacktivism”) that are often launched as a form of retaliatory protest against governmental agencies, commercial entities, and other institutions. Such attacks commonly come in the form of denial-of-service (DoS) or distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDoS), which shut down Internet websites or other Internet-based services. Hackers associated with the group have claimed cyberattacks ranging from minor pranks against various corporations to shutting down the website of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Why are international authorities cracking down on Anonymous?

The protest strategies Anonymous uses -- including DoS and DDoS attacks -- violate Internet usage policies, as well as the specific use policies of most Internet service providers. They frequently also violate the laws of countries where the attacks occur.

Last year saw several high-profile police sweeps against suspected members of the Anonymous group. One of the biggest of those operations was conducted jointly by authorities in Britain, the Netherlands, and the United States. Those joint raids -- which resulted in some 20 arrests, including of a 16-year-old boy in London -- came after an Anonymous hacking campaign against the Internet payment service PayPal and the Visa and MasterCard credit-card companies. Those attacks were retaliation against those companies for freezing the accounts of the antisecrecy website WikiLeaks. A separate series of raids in Turkey resulted in the arrests of some 30 people suspected of involvement in cyberattacks against Turkish government websites.

What has Anonymous been planning lately?

One of the most recent protest actions announced by Anonymous is called Operation Global Blackout. Members say the operation aims to shut down the servers of the social-networking website Facebook. Anonymous has also said Operation Global Blackout could involve a massive attempt to undermine and crash the entire Internet.

-- Wade German

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