Behind the scenes of Anonymous

by Lucas Wisenthal, BA'03

An image from the film "We Are Legion"

Much of Gabriella Coleman’s recent research took place in clandestine online chat rooms, where she communicated with members of Anonymous, the notorious hacking collective behind cyberattacks on PayPal, MasterCard, Visa and the Vatican, among other high-profile targets.

Coleman, McGill’s new Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy, is writing a book about the group and has become a much-sought-after expert on the Anonymous movement, interviewed by the New York Times and CBC Radio, and appearing in the recent documentary about Anonymous, We Are Legion.

Her interest in Anonymous stems from her research on free and open-source software, itself a facet of hacker culture. “Scientology”—which drew the attention of earlier hacking groups in the 1990s—“would come up quite a bit, with people expressing their dislike of the church,” Coleman says. She quietly began investigating the attacks. “Then, in 2008, when something called Anonymous sprung into action to protest the church, I just naturally went to it, because I already had this project in place.”

Anonymous had, in fact, formed in 2003. The collective emerged from 4Chan, an image-sharing community behind an array of popular Internet memes. Initially, the group focused on trolling—that is, staging elaborate pranks on—individuals and organizations that invoked its ire. After attacking the Church of Scientology, though, its actions took on a political bent.

Now, Anonymous is known for its ability to swiftly cripple online payment systems, expose private user information and knock websites offline. The collective gained wider notoriety in 2010, when it launched offensives against companies that refused to process donations to WikiLeaks, which had recently disseminated a trove of confidential international cables.

The amorphous hacker group’s threat lies largely in its numbers. In mounting ambitious, politically motivated operations, Anonymous can attract vast networks of collaborators, including many non-hackers skilled in areas like coding and video production. “They rally the troops,” Coleman says.

To their many sympathizers, the hackers’ subversive sensibilities prove magnetic. “There’s a kind of bad-boy spirit to Anonymous, so that’s kind of fun, because you get to participate in an edgy world,” Coleman says. “It has huge countercultural appeal.” It also gives rise to activism of all sorts. “For some people, it represents a kind of ability to take quick action in the context of a political fear that people are frustrated by.”

That could go so far as helping to overthrow oppressive political regimes, as it did during last year’s uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. “I think the role Anonymous played is one they would see as auxiliary and not fundamental,” Coleman says. “They do what they can—technology assistance, defacing websites.”

Despite Anonymous’ stealthy tactics, some of its most prolific members have in recent months been nabbed in dramatic takedowns. But it’s still too early to tell whether these arrests will halt, or even slow, its operations, Coleman maintains. “Anonymous is multifaceted, so perhaps one class of activity will be less common within it, but not other classes of activities, such as the DDoS attacks”— which paralyze websites by inundating them with bogus requests for information—“and other campaigns.”

The crackdowns, however, revealed the breadth of Anonymous’ base. “You have everything from 16-year-olds to 50-year-olds,” Coleman says. “One network had a very big queer community. You have everything from more Libertarian [types] to leftist, anti-capitalist activists.”

Though she’s more familiar with them than she was a few years ago, Coleman has only begun to penetrate these secretive circles. “It’s always a difficult negotiation,” she says, “because there are so many networks and places. It’s really hard to get a comprehensive view of it all.”