Anonymous: A glimpse behind the masks

In a new video released by politically active hacking collective Anonymous, the group has declared war on the U.S. government, as part of a mission they refer to as ‘Operation V.’ This follows an endless barrage of DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks they launched on government websites. As Anonymous steps further into the spotlight, concern seems to be growing.

“Anonymous has decided to openly declare war on the United States government,” said the video. “This is a call to arms. We call upon the citizens of the United States to stand beside us in overthrowing this corrupted body and call upon a new era. Our allegiance is to the American people, because they are us, and we are them.”

The hacktivist group enjoys increasing support on social networks, and has been bolstered by certain portions of the Occupy movement. However, their recent moves and motivations could be seen as anathema to the important working class values Occupy Wall Street represents.

Unlike Occupy Wall Street, unions, civil rights groups, and many other activist organizations who resort to civil disobedience only when it garners mass support for their causes, Anonymous appears to be willing to break the law whenever it has what it considers a principled reason to do so.

Recently, Anonymous have launched relentless DDoS attacks on websites for major record labels (including Warner Bros.), and the Motion Picture Association of America. They also temporarily took down the websites for the White House, the FBI, and the U.S. Department of Defense, among others. They have done this repeatedly, and have even recruited casual social networkers to contribute to the attacks, sometimes unknowingly.

The hacks and attacks culminated in the security breach and subsequent leak of an 18-minute telephone discussion between members of the FBI and Scotland Yard. The leak was posted on YouTube, in what was a highly embarrassing incident for both parties, who confirmed that the call was genuine.

The NSA has expressed fears that Anonymous could be planning an assault on the U.S. electrical grid, causing countrywide blackouts.

Anonymous’ most recent target was the website for Interpol, which was in retaliation for the arrest of 25 alleged Anonymous associates (which had been in response to cyber attacks that originated from Argentina, Chile, Spain, and Colombia). Interpol called the raid ‘Operation Unmask’ – a tongue-in-cheek nod to the hacking group’s penchant for wearing Guy Fawkes masks.

So why does this all matter? Because everything Anonymous does is – they say – is in the name of freedom of speech and civil liberties. Their DDoS attacks were by and large a response to anti-piracy legislation SOPA and PIPA, and their war declaration is thought to be a response to ACTA, a multinational intellectual property rights treaty that would crack down on copyright infringement and online downloading.

Notably, it would seem the hacktivists also exposed information linking GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul to white supremacists.

Jana Herwig, a researcher at the University of Vienna, Austria, remarked, “Anonymous, the collective identity, has now not only become a part of Internet lore, it is also already being used by people to nurture a resilient self who would stand up for his or her rights if necessary.”

As for the mask they wear (popularized in the graphic novel “V for Vendetta,” which criticized a potential capitalist, distopian police state), she added, “The mask may be empowering, lending them an apodictic rhetoric in the defense of their information rights, which not everyone may be able to muster on his or her own. Anonymous is also about the right to wear a mask, to make use of a speaking position that would otherwise not be available, both online and in physical space.”

But critics feel that Anonymous will simply develop into a dangerous – potentially cyber-terrorist – outfit.

“This operation shows that crime in the virtual world does have real consequences for those involved,” said Bernd Rossbach, acting Interpol executive director of police services, “and that the Internet cannot be seen as a safe haven for criminal activity, no matter where it originates or where it is targeted.”

On the other hand, Anonymous has encouraged the Occupy movement and urged others to join in. However, it’s clear the great majority of the Occupy, labor and progressive movements reject provocative tactics and are putting their focus on building a grassroots movement for economic, racial and social justice, which includes the electoral and legislative arena.

Whether this group is on the right side of history is yet to be seen. Either way, Anonymous have rattled many people with their slogan, directed at, they say, any groups or organizations who would step on individual freedom: “We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.”

Photo: An Anonymous affiliate and Occupy Wall Street protester wears the hacktivist group’s signature Guy Fawkes mask. David Shankbone/Wikipedia

This article was updated on 3.3.12.


Blake Skylar
Blake Skylar

Blake writes on environment and culture. He has covered issues including the BP oil spill and the UN Climate Conference in Paris. In 2015, he received an award from the Illinois Woman's Press Association for his coverage of the People's Climate March in New York. As production manager, he is also responsible for the daily assembly of the PW home page.

He grew up in Garfield, New Jersey. He likes cats, wine, good books, music, and nature - especially long hikes in the woods. He currently lives in Chicago. He writes a blog that can be found at