Anonymous: ‘hacktivists’ have abandoned the streets for more international forms of protest
In early February, a group of 200 Filipino insurgents landed on the northern shores of Malaysian Borneo. Calling themselves the Royal Army of Sulu, they claimed an ancestral right to the disputed region of Sabah. Since then, they have had multiple skirmishes with the Malaysian military. But while the death-toll on the ground increased, patriotic hackers from both countries engaged in a cyber-battle that left numerous businesses offline, including the major Filipino operator Globe Telecom.
The internet conflict intensified until early March, when the independent “hacktivist” group Anonymous made a public statement calling for a ceasefire. Known for cyber-terrorism and online mischief-making, Anonymous seemed to be swapping its Guy Fawkes masks for wigs and gowns. Asking each side to present documents proving the lawful ownership of Sabah, it claimed to be seeking a “peaceful resolution” to avoid further bloodshed.
But it also vowed to support the side with the most convincing evidence and, in true hacktivist style, “extract all the information [they] can get and leak the truth”. This is the modus operandi of Anonymous: crowd-sourced operators hack email accounts, commandeer websites and release sensitive data on symbolic targets ranging from the Church of Scientology to the CIA. They admittedly have no point of reference for the debate between Malaysia and the Philippines, however, and have asked for insight into its historical ins and outs. With Anonymous, justice isn’t just blind, it’s clueless.
Without a clearly defined political philosophy or central leadership, Anonymous is best suited for mass disruption — most members seem content with flexing their virtual muscles. Representative “@AnonyOps” admits a majority just “write code all day and stew about state powers”, but its lack of political coherence does not seem to affect hacktivism’s popularity. Numerous copycats have launched since the group’s founding in 2008 and Time named Anonymous one of its 100 most influential people of 2012.
Hacktivism’s expanding appeal is compounded by an increasing flippancy in choosing targets. Tal Be’ery, an Israeli expert on information security, conducted a study last year that found groups like Anonymous now simply pick on the most vulnerable prey and justify their actions after the attack. The danger is that more intrepid thrill-seekers are sticking their mouses into bloody disputes that could escalate into larger conflicts.
It is unclear how the Borneo vigilantes can be stopped. There have been significant law-enforcement victories — British Anonymous member Christopher “Nerdo” Weatherhead was convicted last December for attacking PayPal, and Anonymous spokesperson Barrett Brown is awaiting trial in Texas on similar charges—but vacancies in the ranks are quickly filled by new recruits. What is clear is that on the digital frontier, security is illusory. In mid-March, Anonymous agents leaked personal data on US Vice-President Joe Biden, Attorney-General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller. As long as any tech-savvy idealist can aim their cursor and administer their own brand of justice, the cyber-landscape will remain as lawless as the Wild West. The Billy the Kids of Anonymous have yet to meet their Sheriff Pat Garrett.