As the year draws to a close and perfunctory 2012 reviews fill the quietened news agenda, one presence seems an almost constant accompaniment to 2012's major news events. When Israel launched a military assault on Gaza in November, while the Assad regime rained airstrikes against the Syrian people, even when the Westboro Baptist Church's planned a predictably vile response to the Newtown massacre -- Anonymous was there.
As Wired's Quinn Norton extensively detailed earlier this year, 2011 and early 2012 presented the sprawling hacker collective with challenges both practical and existential. Hector Xavier Monsegur -- best known as Sabu, a central member of LulzsSec, the arm of Anonymous responsible for the famed Stratfor hack -- was arrested last year and revealed as an FBI informant in March 2012. Dozens of "Anons" across the world were outed by Sabu and picked up by the FBI and Interpol. Sabu's flip to informant not only lost Anonymous some of their most talented hackers, but also eroded the idea of Anonymous as an unbreakable, unfathomable legion. Other faces of Anonymous emerged alongside the cold, grinning Guy Fawkes mask; real, human, flesh-and-blood faces of young men -- like 27-year-old Jeremy Hammond, a social justice activist from Chicago who could face life in prison for his alleged involvement in the Stratfor hack.
But, true to name and form, Anonymous continued. "Anonymous is a hydra. It will keep growing, adapting and evolving" tweeted one of the collective's main Twitter feeds, @YourAnonNews, following news of Sabu's snitching in March. And indeed Anonymous operations ("Ops") throughout the rest of this year have proven the resilience of the collective and its undergirding ideas.
Speaking anonymously from and self-identifying only as "Anonymous," one hacker who spends "an average of ten hours per day, seven days a week working on Anonymous and cyber-activist related activities" ran down some of the collective's 2012 highlights, a year they describe as "frantic and historic for Anonymous":
The New Year began of course with the residual energy and clean up chores from the infamous "Stratfor Hack" and our little "Lulzmas" party wherein we used stolen Stratfor credit cards to deliver nearly 1 million dollars in donations, much of it to Occupy related groups. Negotiations began in 2012 to deliver the stolen Stratfor files to WikiLeaks. And we had a carry over from the year before of "Operation Syria" and "Operation Bahrain", two long running "Freedom Ops" which continued throughout 2012. In February we breached all the government servers in Syria and stole several million government E-Mails, which we later delivered to WikiLeaks.
The first new "Freedom Op" of 2012 began on January 1st and was "Operation Nigeria II" in which Anonymous spent approximately two months supporting Occupy Nigeria nationwide protests.
The New Year also started out with a bang with the explosive and history making defense of Kim DotCom and his company in the historic "Operation MegaUpload." The Op was live for approximately five days in which more websites were DdoSed, defaced and dumped than ever before in the history of cyber-activism. It remains today the largest online act of civil-disobedience protest in the history of the Internet.
Also during the New Year period there was the first of its kind Anonymous secret Op being conducted, "Operation Xport" - the goal of which was to use Anonymous and Occupy related assets to safely transport an indicted Anon known to the world as "Commander X" into political exile in Canada. This first of it's kind Operation was successful and made public two days after X securely crossed the border on February 9, 2012.
During the spring, Anonymous launched yet another "Freedom Op" that was immensely successful and the was "Operation Quebec", to assist the striking students and fight against the draconian "Law 78". This Op ran throughout the summer and into the fall.
During the summer months, while all the other Ops continued - Anonymous launched two smaller Ops that persist to this day "Operation Paraguay" and
"Operation Ethiopia". These also are what are known as "Freedom Ops".
Anonymous sent me this response just days before the Newtown school shooting. When the Westboro Baptist Church announced plans to picket the funerals of the 20 children and 6 adults murdered and Sandy Hook Elementary School, Anonymous jumped into action, publishing personal information about church members and bringing down websites operated by the church.
The Anonymous spokesperson was adamant that the arrest of fellow hackers had not deterred their efforts. However, Kenneth Lipp, a Philadelphia-based hactivist who has been working with Anonymous for two years, seemed less assured. He told me via email:
Frankly I think that the arrests of Barrett [Brown -- the one-time self-identifying Anonymous spokesperson arrested in September] and [Jeremy] Hammond fuel Anons; however, I think Sabu's arrest was certainly chilling (and therefore had its intended effect). Barrett and Hammond were both open about what they do, whereas Sabu's case alerted everyone to their vulnerability even within the IRCs [Anonymous' online chat forums of choice] and chats. Sabu was also personally responsible for a lot of the actual site exploitation and with him out of the picture there is much less "hacking" going on. Anonymous has been largely relegated to the DDoS as a form of civil disobedience.
Despite a shift away from the sophisticated hacks carried out by Sabu and other members of Anonymous' AntiSec and LulzSec arms, my anonymous Anon source expressed great pride at the collective's major Ops this year and the public response to them:
All of the Ops I mentioned above make me proud. When I see us on the Time "Most Influential Person Of The Year" [nominee] list, when I see us winning the Time "Person of the Year" poll, when I see the wonderful Russia Today piece wherein we were designated their "Most Influential Person of the Year", when I watch the amazing motion picture "We Are Legion", it makes the endless hours of work every day to keep the collective going worth it - and it all makes me proud.
Anonymous has been both a media darling this year and a constant challenge to traditional forms of news reporting, which tend to demand that subjects have names and spokespeople be official. Despite the revelation this year of more and more named Anons -- some through choice, many more at the hands of law enforcement -- the collective remains amorphous and largely unconstrained. My Anon source explained when it comes to "who is 'in' or 'out' [of Anonymous] that is a personal choice. If you want to be an Anon, then you are an Anon." There are only a few bare-bone principles now associated with the collective, listed on AnonWiki:
1) Do not attack the media. (This includes main stream, independent, and social media)
2) Do not attack critical infrastructure. (Such as communications networks, power grids - or hospitals)
3) Work for Justice and Freedom. (Especially with regards to freedom of information and the internet)
ANYONE anywhere can initiate an Anonymous operation, action, or group - and so long as they adhere to these basic principles they are as much Anonymous as anyone. EVERYONE is Anonymous.
Yet Lipp, who helped disseminate information for Anonymous' famed hack of tech security firm HBGary and helped with the celebrated "OpTunisia," doesn't speak "as" an Anon. "It seems to me that a lot of energy is wasted on the 'definition' of Anonymous," he told me, adding, "I do think it is important to be clear that no one speaks for Anonymous, but in the same way that no one speaks for every single member of any group. People have freedom of association; if they disagree with the overwhelming public image of a group or term it's incumbent upon them to disassociate themselves with that group or to alter the public image. There's no template manifesto to put public opinion into sharp relief."
As Norton explained, Anonymous is a "do-ocracy" -- a banner defined by actions done under it more than who is flying it, named or unnamed.