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Juliette Kayyem

The mask of Anonymous

By Juliette Kayyem
Globe Columnist / October 4, 2011

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THERE HAD been something entertaining about a merry band of computer hackers, e-Robin Hoods, who would infiltrate the systems of the great capitalistic bastions and stop them in their moneymaking tracks. An early target was the tastemaker and scion of all things haute-couture: Louis Vuitton. When the design firm sued a popular Danish artist for copyright infringement, the hacker group Anonymous unleashed their e-men and attacked. Operation Skankbag was born.

It’s gotten a lot less humorous. Recently, US and foreign governments have made a series of arrests against Anonymous and other hacker groups such as LulzSec, which has targeted Sony, local police departments, and even the CIA. The government rightly views them as a national security threat, but not simply because they take aim at the government. Over time, Anonymous’s targets have morphed from big corporations that are unlikely to arouse mass sympathy (the defense contractor ManTech, for example) to anyone who dares to question or cross Anonymous itself.

Anonymous, the prodigal son of the Internet, has elected itself the decider of who can communicate. Its once-idealistic group of hackers are behaving more like web vigilantes now, and have turned their wrath against those who seek to expose that very fact.

Theirs are not the tactics of traditional grassroots sit-ins and marches, applied to cyberspace. Those types of protests actually expand communication and political discourse. The powerful weapon used by Anonymous is a form of cyberattack known as a “coordinated denial of service.’’ Websites that are deemed unworthy are targeted by viral messages that overwhelm their systems.

Last year, Anonymous crashed PayPal’s site just after it ceased servicing WikiLeaks’ accounts to protest its release of classified State Department documents. Visa and Mastercard, who made the same calculation that they wanted nothing to do with WikiLeaks, were similarly brought down. PayPal may be a big company, but it is utilized by millions of small business owners whose employees depend on their paychecks (and who likely do not shop at Louis Vuitton).

And then eventually the messengers got the hacker treatment. PBS.org became a target after airing a documentary that was somewhat critical of Bradley Manning, the purported source for WikiLeaks. Later, the political news site Talking Points Memo, known to its followers and contributors (I was one) as TPM, was the target of a denial-of-service onslaught. There was no direct evidence linking Anonymous to the attack except that very day TPM had run 14 mugshots of alleged Anonymous members. TPM had secured those photos through the rather quaint Freedom of Information Act.

There may be a place for denial-of-service-type protests - against real corruption, say, or even to expose how porous allegedly secure sites actually are. Whether a viral surge of protest e-mails designed to crash a site is a legitimate form of expression is a debate worth having. But no one seems particularly willing to have it because of Anonymous’s ability to make life difficult for those who speak out against it. At a recent hacker conference in Las Vegas, a critic of Anonymous would only speak out while wearing sunglasses and a scarf to cover his head.

Anonymous isn’t the only group out there; LulzSec, which uses a “SQL injection’’ tactic that sounds painful but is merely a technique to steal information, has made its name hacking government sites. But Anonymous seemed different, if only because its defense of WikiLeaks and targeting of Louis Vuitton and PayPal were aimed at promoting the free flow of information. Like WikiLeaks itself, Anonymous could be viewed as a force for openness.

Not anymore. The leaders of Anonymous, without revealing their identities, could at least explain the thinking behind their strategy by posting e-mails and opinion pieces. (I would be happy to host a discussion.) That would, at least, prompt more critics to take off their masks and consider the group’s actions as protests rather than attacks. Coordinated denial-of-service attacks against PBS.org and TPM suggest that Anonymous has the First Amendment in its sights, which is odd for an organization that seems to want nothing more than to protect the Web as an open platform.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliettekayyem.