Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

Web Summit #4: Anonymous

The hacktivist group’s compelling history.

Mon, Nov 10, 2014, 11:32


Last Wednesday evening, Gabriella Coleman gave a talk about her new book on Anonymous Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy at Hodges Figgis in Dublin, the publication of which happily coincided with the Web Summit. It was cool to do the Q&A with Coleman at the event, as a sort of delayed follow up to an interview I did with her last year (you can watch a video element of that article here.)

Even if you’ve followed Anonymous’ actions since its attack on the Church of Scientology, the group can still feel a little abstract or hard to grasp. Coleman’s book offers a unique, detailed and exciting insight into how Anonymous functions, communicates and is. It really breaks new ground for analysing online movements which have their own cultural cues and tics, their own language, their own structures, and are are simultaneously ambiguous and singular, chaotic and highly functional, disparate and organised. It’s a great read.

It was fascinating to listen to Coleman talk about her engagement with Anonymous, from her interactions with hacker-turned-FBI informant Sabu, to Jeremy Hammond. The audience Q&A was also one of the smartest and engaged I’ve been at, and it was especially interesting to hear Coleman talk about Irish and Dublin hackers in Anonymous.

With that in mind, a great follow up to the book event was the Library Stage panel at the Web Summit on Thursday moderated by Storyful’s Aine Kerr and featuring Coleman and two Irish hackers – Donncha O Cearbhail and Darren Martyn – who are best known for hacking the Fine Gael website in the lead up to the 2011 general election, for which they went to court in 2013. The title of that discussion was Anonymous and Lulzsec: The Politics and Power Behind the Mask.

Some key points from that panel:
- Coleman stopped using a cellphone five days after the Snowden revelations, “I’ve gotten lost in so many cities… it has been somewhat liberating,” she said.

- The idea that it’s hard to be untraceable is something that we’ve come to accept, but isn’t that weird? Isn’t it crazy that we live in a world where it’s increasingly difficult to actually be anonymous, and those in a group called Anonymous are jailed?

- Martyn said “the word abuse needs to be contextualised,” in relation to hacking the Fine Gael website, “yes, it was morally dubious… probably not a good idea at the time.” It was great to actually hear these two guys talk about their actions in a measured and intelligent manner, away from the ignorant hysteria the media often concocts around Anonymous and its ilk.

- Coleman repeated the opinion of an early Anonymous hacker that “Anonymous was never meant to be political,” but called the group “a protest ensemble.” And O Cearbhail summed up the nuances of different opinions, motives and actions within the group with the pithy line, “Anonymous is not unanimous.”

- With regards to Sabu, O Cearbhail said you have to be somewhat sympathetic of his position, and that you can’t hold it against something when they’re facing a lengthy jail sentence (over 120 years). Martyn said Sabu’s actions and the subsequent pursuit of Anonymous by US security agencies and police had “done irreversible damage to the community. Not just the online activist community, but the hacker community in general… it’s probably the informant event that has had the most impact.”

- Both Martyn and O Cearbhail mentioned transparency and accountability as characteristics Anonymous generally advocates for.

- In terms of media coverage, Martyn said, “traditional media don’t have a clue.” Coleman said that individual tech journalists were generally on top of things when it came to Anonymous, but the broader discussions within media were pretty ignorant, most recently with regards to the celebrity nude photo leaks, with entire communities online being tarred with the same brush, even though it’s only a small subsection of that community involved.

- With regards to V Is For Vendetta, Coleman spoke at the book event about how important that was as a cultural touchstone for Anonymous. And at the Web Summit she said, “it’s in the atmosphere… it’s par to the cultural inventory of a lot of geeks and hackers.”

- O Cearbhail rightly said that a lot of young people had been empowered by Anonymous, even from afar, in terms of activism, advocacy, and that it helped politicise and engage people.