The men in the masks What Anonymous really wants?

With protests against the Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) increasing not just within the European Parliament but also on the streets of cities across the world, New Europe spoke with representatives of Anonymous, the hacker collective that has brought down the websites of the Parliament, CIA and many others.

Anonymous appeared in 2008, as part of a protest against the Church of Scientology, who they believed were responsible for stifling online criticism of their organisation. Apart from censorship, they have had a long-running battle with the music industry, which had launched a campaign against file-sharing.

However, although the Guy Fawkes face mask symbolising their anonymity has become an icon of our times, the group themselves remain mysterious and little known. To understand a little more of what is happening on the electronic frontier, there are a couple of points that need to be understood about hacking and the internet.

Hackers are thought of as people who break into computers, but this is wrong. A ‘hack’ is a term for getting around a problem, usually by modifying software or a physical object. Real hackers are as likely to be found building something as they are at writing code. Hackers do stuff. One of the things they have done was to build the underlying architecture of the internet.

The internet is not what you think it is. While we are all used to surfing the web, there is much more to it. There are other protocols rather than http. Different protocols do other stuff, there’s Internet Relay Chat, Telnet and many other layers that are unknown by most internet users and some are very old and seemingly archaic.

The electronic trinity

With this background, there are three circles of activism on the digital frontier – the political, with Pirate Parties and electronic civil liberty groups, the technical, with Anonymous and various spin-off groups and the economic, best shown by the Occupy movement, with their campaigns for a fairer world. It is important to remember that these are not exclusive circles, people will move between them according to their abilities and interests.

The representatives we met were dismissive of the Occupy movement, saying that they were “just sitting around, doing nothing really”. But when the more active occupy camps were mentioned, such as Occupy Wall Street, they were more excited as this camp “were really doing some good stuff”. By this they meant the reaching out, the building of networks and possessing more drive and determination. A good hacker is, after all, interested in results.

The Wall St. protestors have been networking, bringing in many noted experts, and they have set up a series of working groups to look at how a fairer world may come about. As a testament to their innovation and hacker skills, they produced a daily newspaper on the streets, and a whole lot more.

The Pirate parties are seen as a novelty by some and their swift demise is predicted by many commentators, but the parties are just a political representation of many electronic-rights groups and supporters.

 The crossroads

Many of these groups, often facing unplanned success, are now at a stage where they’re asking what the next steps should be. The Occupy camps are beginning to fold and, in truth, most of them were merely the usual suspects, the unwashed and the stoned who were angry, but incoherent.

Anonymous is also beginning to discuss the future. They have become so successful that those on the fringes can launch raids that go against the philosophy of the wider group and it’s hard to say who Anonymous is and who is merely anonymous. They are looking for a way for a leaderless group to remain focused on their core mission, a tough job.

It is highly unlikely that any of the Pirate parties will make an electoral breakthrough and the electronic activists are constantly fighting a rearguard action, but there are some good signs. The ACTA legislation was subject to a serious campaign, and this is one area where they have a serious advantage. They love detail. These activists will go through even the most turgid and technical document to understand it, to see how it can be improved. They do this for fun.

Put it like this; if a hacker will read a 1,000 page technical spec on what one particular piece of equipment does, going through commission directives, draft reports and the rest of the output from parliament committees will be almost relaxing. These people do detail, they devour official documents. Another advantage is in numbers. They have huge resources of like-minded people to bring into process vast amounts of data.

 The vision

What drives this isn’t free downloads. As Christian Engstrom, the Swedish Pirate MEP told me: “You’d be crazy to start a political party just to get free pop music.” The movement formed by these overlapping circles is about something very different. It is about the shaping and liberation of human society. Lofty goals, but the activists would say achievable goals.

They see the internet and technology as having the potential to bring about a real democracy with an informed and consulted citizenship and to cripple this to preserve what they and many others see as an outdated and unsustainable business model the entertainment industry seems unable to adapt, is too high a price to pay.

If you’re serious about democracy, it is.Shining light on the 'darknet'
While the gleeful hacks attributed to the hacker collective may raise smiles or frowns, sometimes they can reach where others can’t. One example is their Operation Darknet, when they captured and destroyed Lolita City, the largest collection of child-abuse images on the internet.

This assault took much expertise and subtle tactics on the ‘darknet’, the encrypted and secret side of the web that few know about. Set up by activists, its role was intended to give truly private communications to people who needed it, such as political dissidents operating in states that monitor and censor the internet.

The many pedophiles using darknet were shocked to discover that their site had been deleted and even more scared when Anonymous disclosed their personal details on the internet.

However, Anonymous found itself with 100 GB of images that they wanted to hand over to the authorities for investigation and arrests. It’s not easy to hand over that amount of such serious content, but New Europe helped them pass the data to Interpol, who are continuing to investigate.

The greatest effect of this raid is that even when these people feel safe from the law, they have found that they are not beyond the long arm of Anonymous.

It is not hard to see how a pragmatic approach on behalf of the two could make life very difficult for those who abuse children in the most appalling manner.