Anonymous: A sit-down with a member of the world’s most famous hacker organization

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“This guy isn’t going to show,” I thought to myself as I sat in the middle of the Starbucks on South Albert, drinking a coffee-something hybrid with a name that I couldn’t pronounce.

I put all of my eggs in one basket. It was Sunday morning, my article was due on Monday, and the whole thing was riding on my interview with someone I had met at a party the night before. Without any contact information, I was left sitting in a coffee shop hoping someone I hardly knew would remember to pull himself out of bed, ignore his hungover daze, and run to a coffee shop to talk with a journalist about his role in the online activist hacker group Anonymous.

Just as I started considering the very real possibility that I would have to call my editor and explain why I did not have anything for him this week, Greg Weber walked through the doors. He was still wearing the same clothes from the party the night before, had messy black hair, and smelt of day old booze.

His body language was markedly different from the night that I met him. At the party he was relaxed, outgoing, and calm. Today, his eyes darted around the room nervously as he briskly walked towards the table. It might have been the hangover or the cold weather that made him look so uptight, I’m not sure.

“Why did you pick this place?” he said to me as he sat down, forgetting that he was the one to choose the location the night before. “I almost forgot to make it here,” he said. “And when I did remember, I almost didn’t show. I couldn’t figure out why I agreed to do this, but whatever, I’m here, so shoot.”At the party the night before, I noticed a man walking around with a Guy Fawkes mask placed on top of his head like sunglasses.

These masks, popularized by the film V for Vendetta, have now become synonymous with anti-establishment protests around the world, and since 2008 they have become an effective way of identifying members of Anonymous.

The decentralized online “hacktivist” group has spread around the world. They claim responsibility for several highly publicized attacks on various government and corporate websites and databases. Anonymous has quickly become the world’s most high-profile group of computer hackers.

When I saw Weber wearing the Guy Fawkes mask, I immediately approached him and asked if he was in the group; he enthusiastically responded, “Hell yeah,” with a large smile on his face. I wondered if he was actually doing something significant with the group, or if he was just another one of the highly publicized “joiners,” who wear Guy Fawkes masks and claim to be involved for the image it provides. He seemed more than happy to talk about Anonymous during the party; the next day was a different story. The conversation was slow in the early going, but opened up over time.

“I joined the group in 2009,” he explained. “As I learned more and more about global politics, massive conglomerates, and various scandals, I began to distrust the system our society was founded on. Forget distrust; I began to outright hate it.”

Weber, who works in the I.T. department for a company he chose not to disclose to the Carillon, stated that after developing a disdain for government and corporate authority, he saw the cyber realm as an area in which governments had little protection and control. He saw it as the best opportunity to do his part to fight back.

“You look at these governments who control the media, the law, everything,” he explained. “I don’t see how a few people protesting in the streets are going to change anything. Governments and corporations can afford to ignore those people because they don’t pose a threat to them. They know that eventually the protestors will run out of steam and go home empty-handed.

“But online, we can attack them in ways they can’t defend and can’t ignore,” he said. “We can capture documents that incriminate them, we can shut down their databases, we can affect their bottom line. That gives us leverage.”

Anonymous has claimed several high-profile attacks on the likes of  SONY, The Westbro Baptist Church, The Church of Scientology, Bank of America, The Tea Party, and numerous foreign governments.

With such a seemingly sophisticated collection of computer hackers, Weber expected the group would be difficult to find, let alone gain membership. However, he found the opposite to be true.

“I was much easier than I thought,” he said. “Really, anyone can join. To make it to the higher levels is one thing, but simply being a part of the group is rather easy. You really just have to conceal your identity while doing things online, and lately, even that requirement has been dropped. There are a lot of people in the community who think all you need to do to be a part of Anonymous is protest while concealing your face.”

This “anyone can join” policy has historically been one of the biggest criticisms of the group. Several leading news corporations, including Fox and CBC, have called the apparent leaderless structure of Anonymous, and easy entrance requirements, a “joke.” Fox news blogger Ryan Singel declared that Anonymous is nothing more than a bunch of “supremely bored 15 year olds.”

While Weber does admit there are more than enough young kids out there who claim to be part of the group, that is hardly the sum total of Anonymous.

“It actually just provides the higher levels with a lot of covering fire, if you know what I mean,” he stated. “As long as there are legions of young kids out there, prancing around in the streets wearing masks, critics can look at them and say, ‘See, this is what Anonymous is, nothing more than a bunch of kids.’ That takes pressure away from members who are really running the show.”

Although its membership is vast, Weber insisted that Anonymous can be broken down into three groups. The first involves people who just want to arrange political protests in the streets and brings awareness to the group, and their philosophies. This would also include the “joiners” mentioned earlier, who only want others to think they are part of the group, and receive any boost to their social status that might provide.

“They are the least anonymous members of Anonymous,” he said. “They are the people you see on TV, Facebook pictures, and so forth. Many of them do a good job spreading articles and information about government deception and corruption, but they rarely take action online or do any real hacking.”

The second sub-group involves individuals with adequate computer knowledge, said Weber. They help to co-ordinate small-scale attacks on websites and databases. According to Weber, these attacks do not cause a lot of serious damage, rather, they disrupt organizations targeted by Anonymous, and help spread its message.

“They are the guys who take down low-security websites and what not,” he explained. “When the Tea Party’s Facebook page was overloaded with photo posts, and had to be shut down, it was members like that who did it. They are responsible for most of the DDoS attacks that you hear about online and in the news.”

In a distributed denial-of-service attack (DDoS), several computer systems attack the bandwidth of a particular website, which can shut down the server, or make it difficult for the intended users to access the pages. The attacks can also increase bandwidth costs for the victimized web pages. Over the course of 2006 and 2007, Anonymous took white supremacist Hal Turner’s website offline several times, costing him thousands of dollars in bandwidth bills. Turner unsuccessfully tried to sue several websites, including 4chan, the birthplace of Anonymous.

"That was undoubtedly a DDoS attack,” Weber explained. “They clearly overloaded his server and made it unavailable to his readers. Thank God, too.

“It’s funny because the members of the community who did plan the attack probably co-ordinated the event on the message boards of all the websites Turner ended up suing. That’s the interesting thing about Anonymous’ communication platform. It is all done on message boards, and IRC chat channels under anonymous names. Unless the government starts policing free speech, the websites involved don’t have to do shit to stop the banter on their boards.”

While Weber stated he stands behind many of the attacks like this, he also claims the decentralized nature of the group creates many unfavourable outcomes.

“It’s kind of like the Wild Wild West out there,” he said. “I am in support of many of the attacks that are organized on these boards, but some of them are just childish and don’t accomplish anything. I mean, there are many users who simply want to mess shit up because they can. Many of their ‘attacks’ involve calling people over and over and leaving abusive messages at all hours of the day. Attacks like that don’t get anything done.

“But like I said before, all that does is pull attention away from the big guns.”

In addition, Weber believes the lack of central leadership creates a hodgepodge of ideas and motives that do not work together. While he states that most members unify under the beliefs of transparency of government and freedom of speech, the ethical standards under which attacks lower-level members carry out attacks are inconsistent. According to Weber, this creates in-house feuds; actions that could be considered immoral by one group of hackers might seem acceptable to another.

“There are so many different factions at work in this thing,” he said. “What would be considered ridiculous by one group of Anons will be normal by another group’s standards. What you end up with is a bunch of groups with differing opinions, doing different things, who are all under a single name. If one group does something stupid, it makes the whole group look bad, and there is no way to do damage control.”

Weber pointed to the supposed Nov. 5 Facebook shutdown as an example.

“That whole thing was a complete farce,” he stated. “Most of the Anonymous members on the message boards didn’t take it seriously at all. If it was attempted, it was done by a small number of people who didn’t make any noise in the Anon community, that’s for sure.”

Anonymous has often been referred to as a collective consciousness, or a global brain. Weber is quick to point out that he does not think it is an accurate analogy.

“If you wanted to make the brain comparison, you would have to add multiple personality syndrome to the mix,” he said. “There are so many differing views across the board, and a lot of hate for each other.”

Anonymous co-ordinates raids through the use of message boards, image boards, and chat rooms. Although 4chan is credited as one of the birthplaces of Anonymous, a plethora of additional websites have emerged, often allowing a group of Anons (members of Anonymous) with similar interests. Weber points to various spin-off “chan” websites, each with its own set of users who are loyal to it. Littered across the boards are posts reading “4chan is a pile of cancerous fail,” or “i hope 888chan stays dead forever!!!.” Racial slurs are a common sight.

“That might be the worst part of the whole organization,” Weber said. “It’s hard for me to even call it a group at this point. There are so many different cliques, so much hate for each other. They even attack each other’s servers with DDoS attacks and are constantly talking smack to each other.”

From the outside, Anonymous appears to be a collective movement, but inside it’s chaotic and unstable.

“Anonymous is really an umbrella term at this point,” Weber stated. “It is just a word used to describe people who do things on the Internet anonymously. To think of it as a single entity that works towards the single goal is wrong.”

However uncoordinated and confrontational the majority of Anonymous hacking appears to be, Weber insists that at the top level – a tier he hasn’t reached – matters get a lot more sophisticated and controlled.

“There are groups of highly capable and organized hackers in Anonymous,” he said. “They’re the people who attacked Sony, Bank of America, and organized Operation Payback.”

Operation Payback, taking place in 2010, rattled various banking, political, anti-piracy, and credit card websites. The highly organized attack was in response to various DDoS attacks made on several torrent websites, and in response to Amazon’s booting of WikiLeaks from their servers, as well as the funding freeze against the whistleblowing website by companies like Mastercard, Visa, and PayPal.

Sarah Palin’s email and credit card information were compromised as a result, PayPal released its pending funding to WikiLeaks, Mastercard and Visa’s websites shut down, and clients of various law firms had their personal information stolen. John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the New York Times that these attacks were “the shot heard round the world.”

“Operation Payback was a big job,” Weber said. “It was highly co-ordinated. It was organized by the more sophisticated groups under the Anonymous name. These guys aren’t easy to find, and they don’t let just anyone in. You have to prove yourself.”

Although Weber never became a part of these “highly sophisticated” factions, he feels that they are the people who have the potential to make an impact on society.

“They are the ones who actually make corporations and governments scared,” he said. “They are the people who draw FBI investigations, take over websites, and pull classified documents off the internet.”

According to Weber, these are members of Anonymous who remain truly anonymous. He claims that all of the announcements for future operations, made on message boards and IRC chat channels, are made by “underlings,” while control of the groups and all the decision making falls in the hands of a small “aristocracy.”

“It’s kind of funny,” he chuckled. “One of main parts of the Anonymous culture is that we are a decentralized group with no real leader, but that kind of disappears when you look at the highly organized parts of the community.

“But I’m not sure how much of a fan I am of complete democracy either. It seems like when everyone can do whatever they want things become very unorganized, people fight, and they don’t respect others’ opinions. I think that Anonymous would get a lot more done if they pooled all of their talents together and made some concessions for each other.”

Weber’s statement about the leadership of highly sophisticated Anonymous groups was confirmed by Aaron Barr, CEO of HBGary security firm, who conducted an  investigation into the group that revealed that there could be as few as three leaders for the entire hacker group. Anonymous denied this in a press release, and followed that up with a debilitating attack on HBGray’s website.

However organized the higher level Anonymous groups appear to be, they are not free from internal feuding. Reports from Ars Technica claimed several power struggles among higher-ranking members resulted in AnonOps, one of the pivotal groups in Operation Payback, being hijacked and shutdown by one of their members, who was apparently trying to fight back against “aristocracy bullshit.” The former administrators of AnonOps responded by hacking his computer and releasing all of his personal information.

“It’s unfortunate,” Weber said. “Anonymous has so much potential. Think of what Anonymous has done so far, releasing classified documents, shutting down websites, attacking people who oppress freedom of speech. All of that was done while they were fighting with each other at the same time, hacking each other, attacking each other. If they could find common ground and stop stabbing each other in the back. I think they could make a huge impact on society.”

With legions of support and a highly intelligent group of members, it appears that Anonymous’ biggest problem is one of direction; they simply cannot agree with each other.

“We could be so much better,” Weber said. “If we ran it like a real organization, I think we could do some serious damage.”

After all the talk about the internal workings of Anonymous, my conversation was cut short when I began to ask questions about Weber’s role in the group.

“I’m not touching that with a 20-foot pole,” he laughed. “Sorry journalist boy, no dice. That wouldn’t be very anonymous now, would it?”

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