Just What Happened to the Internet’s Great Terror?
Doug Bernard | Washington DC
Prediction is a fool’s game. Just ask anyone leaving Las Vegas. Or Nate Silver.
Generally speaking, we don’t play the “Top Ten 2013” list-type entries that populate blogs and other journalism this time of year. There aren’t many things about the future that can be predicted.
But there are a few. Looking back to this same time last year, you might have said we were fools to predict the rapid decline of Anonymous.
“How far will Anonymous go before it goes too far?” we asked back on Feb. 8, 2012. “The answer may come sometime soon.”
It seems that 2012 has given us an answer.
When Things Go Bad
For those unfamiliar, Anonymous calls itself a group with no leaders, no members and no plan, other than what Anonymous decides to do…whatever that means. In point of fact, as we’ve pointed out before, this is simply a lie – but it’s a lie the media have willingly gobbled up and repeated.
Of course there are members of Anonymous, even if many come or go depending on the issue. It takes many busy hands to launch a successful attack against the government of Egypt, or the Zeta drug cartel, as two examples. Of course there are part-time leaders choosing targets and coordinating work, even if they don’t like to be called that. And in spite of some of its admittedly “white hat” good-guy attacks it has launched, of course Anonymous has a plan. That plan, in part, has been to get people talking about Anonymous.
For years, the merry band of pranksters that make up Anonymous has brilliantly exploited media appetites with a series of attacks on the computers systems of governments and corporations, accompanied by a taunting, swaggering attitude that reporters ate up. They rallied to the support of accused leaker Bradley Manning and embattled Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, striking back at credit companies that refused to process financial donations to the group. The group Telecomix, an Anonymous related group, has worked ceaselessly to harass or embarrass Syrian government authorities while keeping the rest of the population as connected to the Internet as possible. Famously, when the CEO of computer security firm HBGary thought he had exposed Anonymous members, he merely encouraged the group to strike back by seizing control of the firm’s systems, publicly humiliating the company and ruining the life of its boss. All of this (plus lots more) just in 2011.
If 2011 represented something of a highpoint for Anonymous, it also began what may have lead to its retreat underground. It was in that summer that the Anonymous-offshoot “LulzSec” began grabbing headlines and stirring it upwith a string of rapid, if not entirely sophisticated attacks on a wide series of targets – all, in their words, “for the lulz.” But also that year, U.S. federal authorities trying to break the back of Anonymous began targeting LulzSec, perhaps as a step closer to its ultimate target.
That August, LulzSec leader Hector Xavier Monsegur, a.k.a. “AnonymousSabu,” began secretly working with the FBI to finger his computer compatriots. Six months later, in early 2012, the FBI arrested five people (one in the US, two in Britain and two in Ireland) charging them with participating in LulzSec hacks. As quickly as it appeared, LulzSec was over. But the biggest “lulz” – against Anonymous – had yet to come.
It may just be coincidence, but at nearly the same time, some of the first high-profile arrests of Anonymous members began in earnest. In February 2012, 25 people were arrested in Europe and South America. Soon after, self-appointed Anonymous spokesman (and perennial attention seeker) Barrett Brown was taken into custody in the middle of a live web-cast chat he was hosting. [Ed note: this is really worth watching!]
Although less entertaining, more arrests followed. All while Anonymous slid further and further from public view. Observers began to publicly wonder whether the unthinkable might have occurred: that the multiple heads of the Anonymous hydra may have been chopped off.
Losing The Limelight
To be sure, hack attacks have continued. It wouldn’t be beyond belief to think a small volley might be aimed squarely at yours truly for poking a few holes in Anonymous’ reputation. And it is nearly impossible to ever fully contain a group whose membership and leaders are so fluid and ad hoc. Anonymous won’t die largely because it can’t.
But something changed in 2012. For a group whose oxygen had been the media spotlight, it’s noteworthy that there was less bluster, less posturing, and significantly less activity credited to Anonymous last year.
“Because Anonymous’ level of technical sophistication has stagnated and its tactics are better understood by its potential victims, the group’s level of success will decline. However, we could easily imagine some short-lived spectacular actions due to convergence between hacktivists and antiglobalization supporters, or hacktivists and ecoterrorists.”
Meaning: the days of spectacularly brazen hack attacks by Anonymous may largely be behind us.
That’s only one opinion, and perhaps not all that new. A year ago, in late 2011,Meaghan Kelly, writing at VentureBeat, wondered whether Anonymous would continue to spin off other groups that pick up the hacktivist banner:
“Anonymous isn’t made up of individuals who allwant to “dox,” or reveal personally identifiable information on the Internet. Instead, many of these people prefer disrupting a website’s service or systems to prove a point. These may be the people who branch off, leaving those who wish to publish personal information to fly the Anonymous flag.”
As long as there’s an Internet, there will be pranksters. Just witness last week’s exposure of the “Bicholim Conflict“, a completely fabricated entry on Wikipedia about a non-existent battle between the colonial Portuguese and India’s Maratha empire. The article, all 4,000+ words of it, lived on Wikipedia’s site for more than five years before an editor, ShelfSkewed, discovered the ruse. Pretty good lulz.
At the end of 2011, this blog declared that year to be “The Year of Anonymous.” Now, just one year later, it looks like Anonymous’ moment has come and – for the moment at least – gone.