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Parmy Olson On Anonymous: 'A Growing Phenomenon That We Don’t Yet Understand'

To some, unscrupulous rabble-rousers; to others, the Robin Hoods of the Internet. The hacker collective Anonymous defies characterization. Parmy Olson, the London bureau chief for "Forbes," has written a new book, "We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency," which looks in detail at the movement, its schisms, and its evolving tactics. I spoke to Olson by phone about her new book.

RFE/RL: How would you characterize Anonymous, as they've been described as a movement, a meme, an organization?

Parmy Olson:
I used to think for a long time that it was a brand more than anything else. But then I almost feel that that's an unfair description and probably the best description for me is movement because anyone can be part of it. It is a crowd of people, a nebulous crowd of people, working together and doing things together for various purposes. There's various imagery and etiquette and phrases that bind people together within this culture. So I suppose movement is the best way to describe it. There should be a new word that comes out like nebulous force or cyberforce or something. It's so difficult to use traditional language to describe such a new phenomenon that's born out of the world of the Internet. But movement is the closest thing. And process as well. It's almost like there's a system in place for how you can protest, for how you can disrupt, and Anonymous is not just an image or a brand but also a process people can use.

RFE/RL: A movement might imply an ideology, but is it the ideology or the process and tactics that binds Anonymous together?

I suppose it's a bit of both and not one thing more than the other. It's so in flux at the moment. I think [Anonymous] is still evolving and still figuring out what it is and people within it are still figuring out what it is and what they're trying to do with it. It started of as this very jokey irreverent comedic pastime for people, just a way to go on the Internet and troll people and pull pranks and stunts on MySpace pages and Facebook pages, and the odd radio host, and it turned into something much more political in the last few years. That's created a schism within it and so the people that were originally wanting to do jokes and trolling are embarrassed by the people who want to make it more political and the people who want to make it more political vice versa.

So it's still finding its way, which means that there is no clear ideology binding everything together -- which is why I think that process is an important part. That is probably the thing that is the most common: you have people finding their way into this crowd through an imageboard called 4Chan or more recently through news reports and going onto the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) rooms and this is where people communicate with one another. It's often through these chats on IRC that they can organize and collaborate and spread the word through Twitter and 4Chan. The different types of platforms that they use -- and by just following the etiquette of being anonymous and not talking about your personal life and working in small groups -- are the hallmarks of how Anonymous works.

Parmy Olson
Parmy Olson
RFE/RL: You mentioned in recent years that after its early 4Chan, lulzy origins, some factions have now become more political. Why is Anonymous important and what good has Anonymous done for the world?

It's important because it's a growing phenomenon that we don’t yet understand and it represents a way that people who don't usually have their voices heard are making their voices heard and getting attention. And so if you invoke the name Anonymous on Twitter or through a press release or through a blog post, the media, and perhaps even corporations and individuals, will pay attention to you more than if you were literally anonymous or using your real name. I think this speaks to a new way of people protesting, for one, and also a new way to collaborate, to disrupt, and to cause problems. I think it's important because it's an indication of just how much we are living our lives online more and more. […] So much of today's real estate is in the world of the Internet.

These people, the folks who are in Anonymous, the supporters, the followers, who aren't necessarily hackers per se but have grown up online and they're Internet-savvy and they understand that subculture of the Internet. They are laying claim to that territory and in many cases Anonymous inflates its own power and its own significance. That's something I've tried to point to in the book. There's a lot of hype in the media about Anonymous and its threats and its power and often times that's just one big prank, but that doesn't mean that it's not important. It doesn't mean it doesn't point to the way groups organize themselves in a much more open way in today's very digitally open society.

RFE/RL: Say I'm an activist on the Internet who hasn't had any dealings with Anonymous and then I hack someone and claim it's an Anonymous hack. Do you think that then would strike more fear into the hearts of the victims of the attack because it's done under the Anonymous brand?

Yes, I would say so, although perhaps not as much as it did a year ago because we're exploring Anonymous so much more now. My book is one example but there are a lot of news reports out there and blog posts and television documentaries exploring what Anonymous really is and how it works. I think people are getting a better sense now that it isn't really just a uber-super-Internet hate machine, but a lot of the time it's just young people who know a few good tips and tricks for getting around the Internet and circumventing certain limitations. From people I've interviewed in the book, one guy will hack into someone's Facebook account because that's just what he does for fun. He's a regular on 4Chan and he'll send off a threatening direct message to that person and he'll always sign Anonymous. He can hijack that name and invoke that name and create a sense of power and mystery and hostility that you just can't get from saying that you're a single person.

The same thing happened a year ago when one person claimed through Twitter that Anonymous had a cache of Bank of America e-mails. This was just after the news media were reporting that WikiLeaks was going to release Bank of America e-mails. The media picked up on it and made a huge story out of it and then what ended up being released was a single e-mail thread between that activist and an ex-employee of Bank of America. So it was kind of a damp squib. But it really spoke to the power of Anonymous to generate hype just with that name. It's such a powerful brand that I would say it does certainly make people worried .It still does. Just with the recent Montreal Grand Prix attacks -- another example of hacking into a website, stealing lots of passwords, e-mails, and customer data and following up with a threatening e-mail that freaks people out.

RFE/RL: According to Anonymous's rhetoric it's a leaderless movement, it's not bound by ideology, anyone can join Anonymous, anyone can act in Anonymous's name, so isn't the risk with Anonymous that you could have someone doing something completely reprehensible, something going back to its old roots, perhaps spamming people with child porn? You'll then see all the Anonymous Twitter accounts saying, "Oh no, this isn't Anonymous." But by the very nature of the movement, it is Anonymous. Isn't that one of the problems they will face in the future because, as the brand has so much cachet, it can easily be hijacked?

Yes, it is a problem. It's such a chaotic organized mess. It's a paranoid world, it's a messy world, and that's why people who might spend a few months becoming very involved in operations as organizers, as volunteers and helpers, they don't stay very long because it just gets a bit too much and very stressful. They just get frustrated with the fact that you have other groups using the name Anonymous and then you disagree. There's a huge among of infighting and e-drama between supporters, which is really normal on the Internet with people who frequent chat rooms for long periods of time. It slows it down. If Anonymous is ever going to find a single ideology or, who knows, spin off some real-life political party -- I'm just speculating here -- but for something like that to happen, it would take a very long time.

RFE/RL: Turning to tactics, one of the tactics favored by some factions of Anonymous is distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks. Some factions of Anonymous have appointed themselves vigilantes of Internet freedom, but by DDOSing websites aren’t they restricting other people's freedom and limiting their freedom of speech?

Right, it's kind of an irony and there's a little bit of hypocrisy there. But I don’t think it matters because with Anonymous there are no rules. On the one hand you have these people who feel that there should be a set of ethics on how they act and who they go after and their tactics and there are so many more who have this more laid-back approach -- just do whatever, anything goes. There are no hard-and-fast rules in Anonymous and so elements of hypocrisy like that don’t really matter and don’t bother people in it.

RFE/RL: From talking to core Anonymous activists, or from activists in the splinter groups, what are the most contested issues in terms of targets and in terms of tactics?

In terms of targets, just from the people I spoke to, anyone who denigrates Anonymous publicly like HB Gary [ a security company hacked by Anonymous], they tend to get the full wrath of Anonymous. Gawker is another one. Gawker put out some stories a while ago about how 4Chan was just a teaming mass of pointlessness and so there was a big hack on Gawker by a group who weren't really saying they were part of Anonymous but its members were certainly followers and supporters of Anonymous. So there's this self-serving ethos there. As far as tactics, that's definitely evolving. A year ago the big thing to do was to DDOS a site: you hook up a botnet to your IRC channel and then overload a website with junk traffic and temporarily paralyze it. More recently the tactics of attack have turned to stealing data using various web tools and searching for vulnerabilities in a website. If you find a vulnerability, you try to exploit it and see if you can suck out some private data and then you just publish it online and embarrass the company or the government agency. I would just add as well that the ability to do that, in hacker culture, it's not that difficult -- the kinds of tools they’re using are readily available and easy to use.

RFE/RL: How does the decision-making process work in Anonymous?

It's different for everyone and it can be quite chaotic at times. What happened in late 2010 when Anonymous was attacking PayPal and MasterCard, a lot of people were joining in the public IRC channel and suggesting various targets to go after like Facebook or Microsoft -- or whoever seemed to deserve the wrath of Anonymous at that time. Often it will just be a small group of people who have the means and the skills and the interest to just go ahead and do something on their own. Then they can just say it's the work of Anonymous. This is often what happened.

I have heard instances where there has been voting on IRC and there have been attempts to make a much clearer way of going about launching attacks. But since anyone can use the name, since anyone can be Anonymous and act as Anonymous, what often happens is that you get small groups of people working together and [deciding] on their own initiative what to go after. As far as how the decisions are made, well it's often based on circumstances so who's in the group and who's got the ability to do this particular type of attack or particular type of hack and then what vulnerability can they find. Often they will find the vulnerability, they will attack the site, and afterwards they will justify it. They'll come out with a reason for why they attacked the site in the first place and this was the case with LulzSec. They scoured the web for very high-profile websites where they could find vulnerabilities and then each hack [looked like] it had been planned in advance when in fact it hadn't.

RFE/RL: Has there been a movement within Anonymous to draw up a code of ethics, or a constitution, or guidelines in terms of defining appropriate behavior?

Yes, there have been those attempts, but again the issue is that there is not a hierarchy or a system when someone creates a manifesto like that…. They get other people to collaborate on writing that manifesto, say they use a web tool like PiratePad, which is very popular, because you create a document and then anyone can edit it and then you can create a press release that way or a new set of rules. So that's a tactic that's often used, but where are you going to highlight that? There's this viral quality to Anonymous that if something picks up it's because lots of people have come on board and they find it interesting and popular. It's a democratic process in one way -- lots of people need to get on board with an idea such as a more legally sounding manifesto and there are certainly attempts like that. If you look at some of the work by Joshua Corman at Akamai Technologies, he's written a series of blog posts about how Anonymous is trying to find its way in a more legal, ethically correct footing.

RFE/RL: Being that Anonymous is such a distributed, networked, leaderless, and decentralized organization, such an attempt to organize and codify Anonymous probably won't have a large chance of success, right?

Yes, right. In which case it goes back to this point about whether it's a movement or is it just a phenomenon and a process? Because if it's just a process then it doesn't need to have that direction, it doesn't need to have that manifesto, and maybe that's all it ever will be. Maybe it never will turn into something more coherent, more legal, and more ethical and it will forever be this way -- this process that people turn to in order to have their voices heard, to disrupt the Internet and to cause trouble.

RFE/RL: And is that a good thing or a bad thing?

It depends what it's for. You asked earlier has Anonymous done good for the world. In some cases, yes, I think it has in terms of some of the stuff they did in the Middle East supporting the pro-democracy demonstrators. But a lot of bad things too, unnecessarily harassing people -- I would class that as a bad thing. DDOSing the CIA website, stealing customer data and posting it online just for shits and giggles is not a good thing. But it comes with the territory of having a free and open Internet that people can do whatever they want. We'll just see whether that freedom will be there 20 years from now.

RFE/RL: In terms of the Stratfor hack, where they used subscribers' credit cards, was there outrage about what they did among some Anonymous activists?

When the Stratfor attack happened, I was racing to finish the manuscript of my book so I didn't report on it extensively. I'm not too sure about the general perception of the Stratfor attack was. On the one hand, the more mischievous side of Anonymous really likes to play up this idea that they attacked this very reputable security company and they stole all these e-mails and it's an incredible heist. On the other hand, the more level-headed, circumspect side of Anonymous looks at that and sees it as another misstep for where it ought to go.

RFE/RL: To take a critical view, they were using people's credit cards unlawfully because they happened to subscribe to a website that offers strategic analysis. That would seem to be a fairly reprehensible thing to do.

Yes, and I agree with you. The thing about Anonymous is that it amplifies this sense of self-justification, this sense of purpose. What I've noticed is that when people join in at first they start off as a volunteer and they almost start to feel obligated, not to the cause, but to the community and what they're doing. It's because you're in Anonymous that what you're doing gives you the moral high ground because you're the underdogs, the Robin Hoods of the Internet, and so while it seems reprehensible in hindsight and to people who aren't in that world, at the time, in the moment, in the heat of it all, it feels like the right thing to do.

RFE/RL: One of the criticisms of Anonymous is that you do have this core of leaders who, perhaps compared to other Anonymous activists, they're more sophisticated in their hacking abilities. One of the criticisms of them is that they lead young impressionable people astray to get involved in things they might otherwise not get involved in. Because they are caught in the heat of the moment and they do have this moral sense of superiority and genuinely think that what they're doing is a force for good. But isn't the irresponsibility more on the part of the leaders?

Absolutely. When you look at this you find that the people who are the figureheads in Anonymous when they're outed, they do tend to be older and the case in point is Hector "Sabu" Monsegur was the leader of LulzSec and a figurehead in AntiSec, this revolutionary spin-off movement from Anonymous in which everyone was trying to attack government agencies and high-profile corporations after LulzSec disbanded. Of course, he was an FBI informant, but very charismatic and certainly one of the reasons why the people in LulzSec became part of the group and stayed within the group. You know there was a lot of dynamic there. They were all feeding of each other and motivating each other to stick with it. Sabu was really a charismatic figure, very powerful, almost controlling figure within the group that people looked up to and felt loyal to and wanted to please.

I think you get a lot of figures like that in Anonymous. Of course this is a world where you can be anything you want to be and ego comes into play a lot. If you're very shy and quiet in the real world you can be that other alter-ego, this leader, a self-styled revolutionary. What Anonymous does is amplify that further, giving you moral justification, a purpose, where you feel almost like an Internet super-hero. I'm sensationalizing it a little bit, but really that's what's going on for people. It's a very emotional experience and it's incredibly heated and frenetic when these operations are going on. When you're in the midst of it it's like the real world is shut out and everything is taking place online. You almost lose touch with reality and lose a sense of the consequences of what you're doing, what those consequences are in the real life for the people that you're attacking and for yourself if you get arrested. To go back to your question about the leaders of Anonymous, there's certainly a lot of responsibility there with those people but the fact that a lot of young people are being drawn in by the sense of camaraderie, the obligation, the peer pressure almost. I think the authorities should take that into account when they're doling out their punitive measures once these people are arrested.

RFE/RL: What is the future of Anonymous?

It's a difficult question to answer and I really just don't know. If I were to speculate I would say that it won't go away. Maybe the imagery will change. There will be new people involved. But as a process and as a phenomenon, it will continue to exist, because the name itself speaks to why it's so powerful. When people can shed their identity offline they can create something new online and this ability to work together collectively in the same way that the Internet is binding us all and binding all the objects in our households, from the microwave to the fridge to whatever else. And that's what's happening to us as people, not so much a hive mind as you might read about in science fiction, but in the way we work together. It's becoming much more open and I think Anonymous gives us a peek into the future way we'll organize ourselves more and more over the next few decades. I think there will always be that cadre of disruptors and rabble-rousers who want to take a contrarian look at the way we live our lives and just want to disrupt things for serious reasons or for shits and giggles.