“Building a Better Anonymous” Series: Part 1

Posted: 2011/12/20 in Anonymous
Expect Anonymous Fight Club Soap (Artwork by Mar - sudux.com)

Expect Anonymous Fight Club Soap (Artwork by Mar - sudux.com)

Part 1: Introduction & Approach

By Josh Corman & Brian Martin


If you are new to this series, please begin with Part 0 and the index.

NOTE: We will post each installment here for the security industry to garner feedback for about one week prior to posting to Forbes.com and a more mainstream and business readership. Please comment toward improving/clarifying the content.

Why Write This & Operating Parameters

As we sit here to write this in October and November of 2011, we’d like to render a few things explicit. As objective observers, we’ve seen the rise of Anonymous and other chaotic actors as both intriguing and “of consequence”. We’ve also seen very little in the way of what we’d call “insight” or “understanding” toward the evolution of the “group(s)”. Those who are publicly speaking don’t seem to “get it”. Those who seem to have insight are frequently unwilling (and in many cases afraid) to speak.

So with natural curiosity, we have attempted to ask questions, engage in dialectic, apply logic and analysis, and see if other willing minds can’t nudge the conversation forward in useful and non-confrontational ways for the benefit of all. As the group(s) continue to morph and evolve – and as our comprehension (hopefully) improves, this will clearly re-cast the content of what you will read throughout these articles. We will attempt to capture thought at this time – and when necessary, we may adjust/augment/update against this point-in-time content.

Operating parameters of this series:

  • We are not now, nor have we ever been, members of Anonymous
  • We have not joined any IRC rooms affiliated with Anonymous
  • We are not seeking to “break” any story, but rather to logically analyze events as they unfold and to anticipate likely future scenarios and developments
  • We are not seeking to identify or investigate individuals, but rather to understand broader attitudes and motivations
  • By writing this article, we are not endorsing or denouncing Anonymous

Anonymous Background

Unstructured and nebulous, a group called Anonymous, born in the trenches of virtual trolling, has become a household name based on a reputation of civil disobedience and digital activism. They are a wildly diverse and unpredictable group, one that takes up arms to fight a varied collection of causes, while having no stated charter or organizational chart. Despite these seemingly limiting traits, Anonymous has flourished and become a force to be feared or respected, but not reasoned with.

Many people believe they know the history – but “which one?” The history of Anonymous is just as murky as trying to define them. The very brief history we present below could be thought of as a commonly accepted history. However, a similar history claims the background is more wrong than right. Gregg Housh, a former Anonymous member who now observes the group, has put together a considerably more thorough “chanology timeline” that attempts to chronicle all events related to Anonymous.

Formed in 2003, Anonymous was born out of a community / forum known as “4chan”, with a subset message board called “/b/”. Gawker wrote a concise summary of these boards and other 4chan affiliated projects, to better explain the origin of today’s Anonymous. Widely perceived as putting their attention and power toward a greater good only in the last three years, Gawker notes that previous pranks may have begun to show their ‘good’ side much earlier. Based on the concept of an anonymous community that became a shared collective identity, the Anonymous name gained international attention in 2008 for Project Chanology, a coordinated fight against the Church of Scientology. Years before Project Chanology, between 2006 and 2007, Anonymous demonstrated that they were heading down a path of righteousness with several high profile activities. In subsequent years, the group continued activities that garnered mainstream media that demonstrated the concept of digital activism, sometimes based on illegal hacking activity.

Anonymous activities in 2011 have helped them become a household name, covered by all types of media and gaining increased attention from law enforcement and pundits. Security firm and government contractor HBGary Federal angered Anonymous after claims that they were working with the FBI to unmask key Anonymous members, resulting in more than 60,000 private e-mails of CEO Aaron Barr and other employees being published. In response to Sony suing Geohot (aka George Hotz), Anonymous launched a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) against the corporate giant, resulting in Sony blaming them for subsequent attacks they had no declared part in, which were numerous. Banking giant Bank of America dealt with Anonymous when they released internal mails that claimed to prove corruption and fraud“Operation Anti-sec” was (re)born, with the Anonymous splinter group LulzSec teaming back up with their parent group to protest a list of government transgressions by breaking into numerous sites ranging from the Arizona Department of Public Safety to The Times to the Fox News Twitter Account. One of the most recent attacks after our DEFCON 19 panel was launched against the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) after the death of BART passenger Oscar Grant, leading to BART customer information being exposed and increased calls for protests. These activities, and more, have resulted in the group being perceived as more dangerous as well as more effective.

Understanding Anonymous

It is not easy to claim understanding of a group so diverse as Anonymous. At best, one can attempt to understand some of the fundamental principles and ideas that motivate some, but not all, members. There are several articles that attempt to display this understanding, written from a variety of perspectives (and possibly involvement). For example, Adrian Crenshaw wrote “Crude, Inconsistent Threat: Understanding Anonymous“, in which he discusses the motivation and organization of the group. Josh Corman, co-author of this article “ has previously written about the topic“. Cole Stryker has even authored a book on the topic, titled “Epic Win for Anonymous: How 4chan’s Army Conquered the Web“. One thing should remain clear; no one person will ever fully understand Anonymous beyond the broad influences.

Throughout their history, Anonymous has exposed weakness and vulnerabilities in a wide variety of social and technical systems. In doing so, the group has been demonized unfairly by a wide range of people including the media and law enforcement. One fundamental truth that seems to escape many observers is that the vulnerabilities were already there. Anonymous just brought them to the public’s attention. In crying for the heads of Anonymous, we are effectively shooting the messenger bearing bad news. Gene Spafford, from the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security (CERIAS), summarized the underlying issue that is absolutely critical for everyone to understand:

“First, if a largely uncoordinated group could penetrate the systems and expose all this information, then so could a much more focused, well-financed, and malevolent group – and it would not likely result in postings picked up by the media. Attacks by narcotics cartels, organized crime, terrorists and intelligence agencies are obvious threats; we can only assume that some have already succeeded but not been recognized or publicized.” — Gene Spafford

Anonymous Zeitgeist in Popular Media

For those who wish to avoid the laborious task of trying to define a chaotic and disparate group, there are several pop culture leanings that may help paint the group in a very broad stroke. These media references are based on Anonymous’ actions and the authors’ interpretation of their activity and writings.

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

Due to the adoption of the Guy Fawkes mask as a symbol of the group, perhaps the most popular pop culture reference would be Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. Toward the end of the movie, the protagonist V outfits thousands of citizens in a black cloaks and Fawkes masks to create an anonymous army of sympathizers fed up with the totalitarian government. This scene is perhaps the ultimate symbolism for the group as we know it; an army of oppressed citizens finally fed up with an abusive regime that has stripped them of privacy, civil liberty and ultimately power.

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club touches on broad leanings of Anonymous members. The idea of a near cult-like group engaging in diverse projects under the names ‘Project Mischief’ and ‘Project Mayhem’ certainly draws parallels to Anonymous. Members of the group determine their own level of involvement, a strong theme of Anonymous. Ultimately, tapping into the latent frustration of members, eloquently summarized by Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) in the movie adaptation:

Man, I see in Fight Club the strongest and smartest men who have ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see it squandered. Goddammit, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables, slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man; no purpose or place. We have no Great War, no Great Depression. Our Great War is a spiritual war. Our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised by television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars. But we won’t; and we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.

Watchmen by Alan Moore

Watchmen by Alan Moore

Another Alan Moore graphic novel, The Watchmen, highlights several aspects of the Anonymous collective; post-modern anti-heroes willing to do evil things to avoid a greater evil, a cast of characters confront and challenge both morality and alignment, redefining the popular concept of heroes embodying good. One of the running themes throughout the novel is the idea of “who watches the watchmen?”

The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight introduces people to a purely chaotic evil actor, The Joker, who the butler Alfred draws an allegory to. He tells Bruce Wayne of a bandit he helped chase in a forest who was throwing away the jewels he stole, saying “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical … [they] just want to see the world burn.” Wayne asks how he was ultimately caught. Alfred replies, “We burned the forest down.” A simple solution, but one that is easily argued as worse than the bandit’s actions. Opposite of the chaotic evil Joker is Batman, a chaotic good hero that demonstrates a steady scale of escalation to fight evil, just as Anonymous appears to do often times. At the same time, Anonymous likely has a handful of chaotic evil actors involved, even if they don’t realize it yet.

Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex The Laughing Man

Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex The Laughing Man

There are several other notable media that draws parallels to Anonymous to some degree or another. Ghost in The Shell – Stand Alone Complex is eerily prophetic about these concepts, with a villain named Laughing Man that is essentially a collective of infectiously contagious meme copycats of an original that may not even exist.SLC Punk showcases the fleeting catharsis, contradictions, inconvenience, and ultimate emptiness experienced by a few young anarchists.

SLC Punk!

SLC Punk!

With the group constantly changing and adapting, losing followers as often as they gain new interest from the disenfranchised, understanding will come in small waves and require reexamination every step of the way.

Copyright 2011 by Josh Corman and Brian Martin. Permission is granted to quote, reprint or redistribute provided the text is not altered, appropriate credit is given and a link to the original copy is included. Custom graphic courtesy of Mar – sudux.com.

Should you feel generous, please donate a couple of bucks on our behalf to any 501(c)(3) non-profit that benefits animals or computer security.

  1. @AnonyOps says:


    So far this is shaping up to be a great read, and I can’t wait to see the rest.

    I wanted to issue a point of clarity here on the BART hack. Technically yes, the hack of their website (bartpoa.com) happened after the killing of Oscar Grant, but it wasn’t the immediate impetus for the hack. BART drew the ire of Anonymous after BART found out about a planned protest on the platforms and shut down cell service just before the protest was planned to begin.
    Consequently, this action happened shortly after Mubarak shut down cell service in Egypt, which was noted by a few people, one of whom was @ioerror. This was what birthed the #opBART movement and triggered the hack of the website by “lamaline_5mg”.

    Here’s a report of the hack from SFWeekly, and the chat log between lamaline and n0pants:

    Also, lamaline was adamant she was not a part of Anonymous. She talks about this fact in the following chat log: http://pastebin.com/gJmYcAnz

  2. I’ve not been involved in any of Anonymous’s more nefarious activities, but I was in Clearwater in 2008 for the protests against Scientology. It quickly degenerated into a fucking convention where everyone was too busy joking and eating to focus. So I stopped going after the second event.

    I’m shocked to see that the contingency of Anonymous that backs OWS (the majority, I’d suspect) is actually focused.

    • SinewaveAnon says:

      You shouldn’t be. The Anons who couldn’t keep it together probably gave up the same way you did, only to be replaced by Anons who could. Also, a few of them probably grew up and learned how to focus. When you can’t tell who is who, you can’t tell how things have changed behind the scenes.

  3. Hello Josh – really good read so far.

    Now, I don’t know how much my opinion will be of value to you, but just like you, I too found the dealings of “Anonymous” quite intriguing; from a marketing (that’s what I’m in)/cultural point of view, they/it certainly played a significant role in shaping the beliefs of the current, population-wide counter-culture. They have a very strong brand/idea/message that resonates quite well with the younger, internet-living generation (or as they called it “generation 0” (see the message from Anonymous to New York, Wall street protesters http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qC9Vyt1ZBpQ&feature=player_embedded, published around Sept 28).

    Actually, to me that video, its message, and the societal context within which it was published was a bit of a turning point for Anonymous, and I mean that in terms of how Anonymous defined its place and role in today’s society. Now, this is my personal opinion, but I feel that once protests such as Arab Spring and OWS kicked in, it gave Anonymous a sense of belonging and an idea of the role it should play in our society. It also gave them a validation that society needs them as well – afterall, Anonymous is after the same things as you, and everyone who stands with us is Anonymous, hence WE are all Anonymous (cue final scene of V for Vendetta and fireworks). As you said, there are a lot of players in this, but they are a part of something bigger.

    I feel that there is a strong sentiment out there that the near future (say 2012 and beyond) will bring a significant shift in how the world operates; the younger generation (y-ers as they call them) is slowly getting ready/forcing itself (depends which way you see it) to take over the ranks, and lead this world into a new era (the whole idea of being “One” is very strong at the moment). Anonymous is trying to fit in with that mentality, and by associating itself with similar minded, “non-linear/unhierarchal” popular groups such as the Occupy movement and Wikilieaks, it is helping to position/brand itself with the “change is a coming” idea that’s so popular right now.

    I feel that when Anonymous first started, it was less about “being in a defined group” and more about being a part of and living a certain lifestyle – it’s almost like a hidden group that does not exist in the real/physical world, but gathers around/discusses ideas/executes beliefs in the digital sphere where no one really knows who you are. Although the group/loose gathering of individuals that was at the core and from the beginning of the movement might claim that the movement is now decentralized, and has no control over what Anonymous (its followers/desciples/copycats) is doing/saying, there still must be some sort of central think-tank that will guide the direction the movement and the idea of Anonymous will take. After all, by following Anonymous on Twitter, they led me to this page, they send me messages that they want me to see (Bradley Manning info, What does 2012 mean to me, etc), and portray themselves in a light they want me to see them in.

    Really hope this might be of some use to you, and once again, these are just my own views on Anonymous, so I might be way-off in my own beliefs – it’s just how I see them. Good luck with the project, and if you want any further info/clarification/whatever, let me know – will be glad to help.

  4. Bvaiscs says:

    I love the idea of Anonymous and everything that Anonymous has done, I can only see the good behind. For now, I read and try to influence people to understand what is happening in the world we live in. Too many people are focusing on the puppet show (Hollywood and Mainstream News) and don’t dig to find out truth.

    Let’s face it, the cyber war that Anonymous and LulzSec have been fighting is a great effort, but what are peoples plans when shit hits the fan and it goes from cyber warfare to physical warfare? I see it as inevitable and unfortunate but I would rather fight along side my fellow brothers and sisters than to never step up. I have been told that my views are “radical” but in this day and age, I’d rather be labeled a radical then a mindless sheep.

    For now, I fully support any and all efforts to reestablish freedom and the chance for prosperity that is currently taking place. Our forefathers didn’t write the Constitution just to see the people of these lands become controlled by tyrants again.

    Ron Paul 2012

    • SinewaveAnon says:

      Let’s face it, the cyber war that Anonymous and LulzSec have been fighting is a great effort, but what are peoples plans when shit hits the fan and it goes from cyber warfare to physical warfare?

      There are milAnons who have joined in Ops. I think a few of them will take up arms if necessary to take action as you describe.

  5. amylwisc says:

    Like the other comments, I’m not part of Anon, but I believe what they are doing is right. They are taking a flashlight and exposing the greed, the corporate lies, and shady government practices. That negative behavior of those with power has grown exponentially. The privileged and powerful appear to be able to do what they want with no concern for others.

    If any poor fool points out their behavior out to them, they behave like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland “Off With Their Heads”!!!, with no logic or remorse. Then some Marketer/Spinner, will construe this amazing story where the Queen of Hearts should be considered for sainthood.

    “We the People” that are not in power and wealth remind me of when someone is sick and takes all kinds of medicine, but never really faces their health issue. We have become dependent and anesthetized and have let these powerful beings rick roll us. Anon is a wake up call to what we should be. United as One. The Ralph Nader of the Internet in 2001, putting the peoples rights and needs before the greed. Exposing the Truth.

  6. LolDongs says:

    Hi i think you outlined in a clear and concise manner, and i think that should move towards more and . I hope to read more of this series on because is an important part of the landscape today.

  7. networksecurityprincess says:

    A great book which might provide some additional insight regarding the influence of Anonymous is “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.” Sometimes the potency of an organization isn’t in what it actually accomplishes, but how it infiltrates and shifts the culture. I view recent hacktivism as a kind of Postmodern retooling of revolutionary groups like the Weathermen or the SLA from the 1970’s. I think the following Palahniuk quote captures the real purpose of Anonymous: systematic destruction of society’s self-made prison through the use of chaos. It’s posited on the idea that the universe is essential entropic.

    “You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple years you’re satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you’ve got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you.” ~Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club, Chapter 5

  8. […]  Speaking of Josh Corman, you must read his series on “Building a Better Anonymous” on his Cognitive Dissidents blog – it is some of his best stuff (and that’s saying […]

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