Celebrating Anonymous: The hackers’ big year

Bad copyright laws, evil religious nuts, overzealous cops: In 2012, the hacker collective picked its enemies well SLIDE SHOW

Topics: slideshow, Anonymous, Best of 2012, Privacy, online privacy, Surveillance, sopa, acta, megaupload, Sandy Hook, Westboro Baptist Church, Editor's Picks, ,

Celebrating Anonymous: The hackers' big year (Credit: AP/Petros Giannakouris/Salon)
Perhaps no tech story was bigger this year than the growth of the crusading hacker collective Anonymous. In a Best of 2012 package, Andrew Leonard considers the group's mission and popularity. Natasha Lennard discusses the group's biggest successes of 2012 with a member. And a slide show looks back at 20 of Anonymous' most attention-grabbing efforts.

“I love Anon.”

The comment, written by a teenage boy at Berkeley High School a few days after the Sandy Hook shootings, came in response to a Facebook post made by my own 15-year-old son.

My son was passing along the word that the hacker collective Anonymous had declared war against the Westboro Baptist Church, that clan of deranged religious fanatics who routinely seek to turn the misery of others into their own grandstanding opportunity.

Outraged at WBC’s plans to protest at the funeral of Sandy Hook Elementary’s principal, Dawn Hochsprung, on Dec. 19, in order “to sing praise to God for the glory of his work in executing his judgment,” Anonymous proceeded to expose the personal information of WBC members — home and email addresses, phone numbers, etc. — and started acting as a coordinating center for anti-WBC counter-protests. For teenage boys at Berkeley High, Anonymous’ direct action was the epitome of cool.

But the next morning, as WBC members and counter-protesters gathered in Newtown, Conn., and Anonymous-affiliated chat rooms buzzed with discussion of “#opWestboro” and “#opWBC,” Twitter dropped a bombshell. The social media network suspended the largest Anonymous Twitter account, @YourAnonNews.

Never mind WBC’s heinous plans! Here was another opportunity for outrage! Censorship — a sin that galvanizes Anonymous like no other. A backup Anonymous account that had been prepared for exactly this kind of dire eventuality sprung into action and solemnly intoned: “Free Speech is Dead.” The hundreds of thousands of people who followed @YourAnonNews salivated for a new showdown, anticipating an imminent clash in which the awesome might of Anonymous would hurl itself against Twitter’s infrastructure. Shit was about to get real.

Except, less than an hour later, Free Speech was Alive. Anonymous, according to Twitter, had run afoul of Twitter’s ban on posting personally identifying information about other people. But after @YourAnonNews applied for reinstatement, Twitter relented. Never mind! Nothing to see here. Back to Newtown we go.

Was the morning’s drama an instance of one of the world’s mightiest social media networks knuckling before the power of the hactivist collective? Maybe. A tempest in a teapot? More likely. Kind of hilarious in all its digital sturm und drang? Definitely. Fantastic publicity for Anonymous’ goal of shaming the Westboro Baptist Church? Absolutely, positively.

As with all of Anon’s actions, whether those be online rallies against overly harsh copyright laws or denial-of-service attacks designed to crash websites deemed the enemy for whatever reason, or straightforward gestures of organizational support for on-the-street actions like the Occupy protests, it’s always a little hard to tell exactly what, in the end, Anonymous achieved with #opWBC, just as it is always tricky to define what Anonymous actually is. Digital freedom fighters? Subversive delinquents? Run-amok pranksters?

None of the above or all of the above, depending on who you talk to. And that might be how it should be. Anonymous prides itself on its inchoate lack of definition. But underneath all the confusion, there’s still something definitely there. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be anything to merit that teenage declaration of love on Facebook. Particularly for the young, the generation that cut its teeth on the digital frontier and increasingly gets its news from nontraditional sources, Anonymous is the conscience of the Internet; doughty defenders of free speech and privacy in an era when the surveillance state has never been more powerful. So in that sense #opWBC, regardless of its success or failure, provided a sweet coda to a tempestuous year. The Westboro Baptist Church might be an easy target, but when Anonymous lined up against it, it reminded us why the hacker collective, even if it might be hard to define, is still easy to celebrate.


Anonymous accompanied its announcement of hostilities against the Westboro Baptist Church with a slick, ominous video, featuring a computer-generated voice laying out the case for action.

Your pseudo-faith is abhorrent, and your leaders, repugnant. Your impact and cause is hazardous to the lives of millions and you fail to see the wrong in promoting the deaths of innocent people. You are self-appointed servants of God who rewrite the words of His sacred scripture to adhere to your prejudice. Your hatred supersedes your faith, and you use faith to promote your hatred…

From the time you have received this message, our attack protocol has past been executed and your downfall is underway. Do not attempt to delude yourselves into thinking you can escape our reach, for we are everywhere, and all-seeing, in the same sense as God. We are a body of individuals who fight for a purpose higher than self, and seek to bring the malevolent intent of the malefactors to light.

We will not allow you to corrupt the minds of America with your seeds of hatred. We will not allow you to inspire aggression to the social factions which you deem inferior. We will render you obsolete. We will destroy you. We are coming.

Everyone is equal. We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not Forgive. We do not Forget. Expect us.

Personally, I have to say, if I were a 15-year-old boy, Anonymous would be knocking my socks off with that kind of badass propaganda. But I’m not; I’m a 50-year-old guy, and while I won’t defer to anyone in my hatred of WBC, Anonymous’ response seemed overwrought and grandiose. “All-seeing, in the same sense as God”? Please. Such rhetoric is more appropriate for the villain in a Chris Nolan Batman movie than for the real world, here and now. Likewise, a comment made by one Anonymous sympathizer during the brief window in which @YourAnonNews was suspended that “Suspending News-Accounts is like killing Journalists (like in Mexico) for telling the Truth,” is just dumb. A Twitter suspension is not a murder.

But when the topic is Anonymous, it’s probably always a good idea to restrain one’s tendency to make totalizing judgments. It is in the nature of Anonymous that the video in question could just as easily have been the product of single person hopped up on Red Bull-fueled delusions of grandeur, instead of a carefully considered representation of the collective hacktivist will. In Anonymous, everyone gets the chance to write their own manifesto. The more, the merrier.

One thing’s for sure — the video was an artifact designed to be shared, hither and yon, and if you hadn’t already heard of Westboro Baptist Church, the video would be certain to pique your interest. My son doesn’t read the newspaper, and we’d never discussed Westboro at the dinner table. But he still found out. I blame Anonymous. No, wait, I salute Anonymous.

Gabriella Coleman, an expert in hacker culture, is writing a book about Anonymous. She told me that one of the most fruitful ways to think about Anonymous is simply as a vehicle for getting the word out.

“One of the things that is interesting about them,” said Coleman, “is that they have shown the world what large-scale protest politics online looks like. But in the end, I think their strength is publicity.”

In 2012 alone, Coleman said, Anonymous had played a significant role in publicizing the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) in the U.S., the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) and the government crackdown on the MegaUpload file-sharing site. The denial-of-service attacks that temporarily shut down government or corporate websites shouldn’t necessarily be seen as acts of vandalism that break things, suggested Coleman, but rather as stunts designed to get the world thinking, hey, there might be something weird and wrong, as in the case of MegaUpload, about the spectacle of a government shutting down a major website before a court has found anyone guilty of a crime.

In 2012, Coleman wrote earlier this year, Anonymous “began to be portrayed as an open-source brand of radical protest politics and not necessarily as hooligans hell-bent on unleashing extremist, chaotic acts… Anonymous is a distinct, emerging part of this diverse and burgeoning political landscape. Its real threat may lie not so much in its ability to organize cyberattacks but in the way it has become a beacon, a unified front against censorship and surveillance.

What’s not to love? Go get ‘em, Anonymous.

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    MortAuPat via Flickr.

    Anonymous Slideshow

    January 19, Operation Megaupload

    In response to the government shut down of Megapuload—a popular file sharing service—and arrest of four of its employees, Anonymous staged a DDoS attack on the websites of the USDOJ, the US Copyright Office, Warner Brothers Music, the RIAA, the FBI, and the UMG (the company that filed the suit against Megaupload) among other related sites.

    Haeferl via Wikimedia Commons.

    Anonymous Slideshow

    January 21, Anti-ACTA protests in Europe

    After a series of governments signed on to the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) but before any EU countries had committed to ACTA, Anonymous shut down various websites of European governments, including those of Poland, France, Austria, and Slovenia (as well as the site of the allegedly corrupt Slovenian bank, NLB). On Twitter, Anonymous declared that the attacks were in protest of ACTA.

    Kaplina Alena via Wikimedia Commons.

    Anonymous Slideshow

    Feb 1, Operation Russia

    Hackers who identified themselves as part of the Anonymous movement hacked into email boxes of prominent pro-Kremlin officials and activists, including Vasily Yakemenko (featured), the head of the Federal Agency for Youth Affairs. The emails, which the activists released over the @OP_Russia Twitter account, revealed information that implicated that Yakemenko paid influential bloggers and trolls to create a positive impression of Putin on the Internet (In case you're wondering, 200 pro-Putin online comments on 60 articles go for 600,000 roubles, almost $20,000 USD).

    James Gordon via Wikimedia Commons.

    Anonymous Slideshow

    February 6, Syrian Government Email Leak

    Anonymous hacked the mail server of the Syrian Ministry of Presidential Affiars, acquiring access to some 78 inboxes of staffers for Bashar al-Assad. In July, Anonymous gave over 2.4 million of these emails to Wikileaks. Haaretz obtained one email meant to prepare Assad for his 2011 interview with Barbara Walters, when he famously denied that his government was killing its own citizens. In the email, Assad's media advisor tells him that the “American psyche can be easily manipulated.”

    Duffman via Wikimedia Commons.

    Anonymous Slideshow

    February 10, Fighting the CIA, Scotland Yard, and Interpol

    As part of a #FFF (FuckFBIFriday) post, Anonymous leaked a conversation between an FBI agent and a Scotland Yard official about putting Anonymous and Lulz Sec (a group within the collective) hackers on trial. Along with the leak, Anonymous took down the CIA’s website for over five hours. A few weeks later, Anonymous briefly took down the Interpol site after the agency announced the arrests of 25 suspected members of Anonymous.

    Xerones via Flickr.

    Anonymous Slideshow

    March 13, DDoS the Vatican

    In protest of the corruption of the Catholic Church—not followers of Catholicism—and other offenses including child molestation, Anonymous brought down the Vatican website twice with DDoS attacks, and hacked Vatican Radio to get access to its database.

    Andrew Griffith via Flickr.

    Anonymous Slideshow

    April 21, Bahrain Grand Prix

    When the Bahraini government decided to hold the Grand Prix race despite violent crackdowns throughout the country, Anonymous vandalized the Formula One racing site and a number of fan sites, some of which where replaced with a message from the collective detailing the oppressive nature of King Hamad bin Al Khalifa's regime. The collective also dumped data related to ticket sales, including names, email addresses, and passport numbers of spectators, but with all credit card numbers redacted.

    OECD via Flickr.

    Anonymous Slideshow

    May 20, Operation Quebec

    In reaction to the anti-assembly Bill 78 touted by Quebec's Premier Jean Charest (featured right), Anonymous released a video urging Charest's Liberal Party to let citizens protest. The hacktivists also took down the the Liberal Party of Quebec's site and a government site on police ethics, among others, with DDoS attacks. On May 30, hackers leaked a two-hour long video called “DVD Gouvern(mental)” that showed a party of business and political elites including Premier Charest and former US president George H. Bush in an effort to demonstrate corporate-political ties.

    thorner via Flickr.

    Anonymous Slideshow

    June 26, Operation Japan

    Anonymous took down the site of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and several other government sites in response to copyright laws passed in Japan that could result in fines of $25,000 or two years in prison for those caught with pirated material. It was the first attack Anonymous has made against the Japanese government.

    amberjamiewordpress via Flickr.

    Anonymous Slideshow

    July 25, Operation Anaheim

    Anonymous supported the massive protests sparked by two fatal police-involved shootings in Anaheim, including that of the unarmed 25-year-old Manuel Diaz. The collective released Police Chief John Welter’s personal information, threatened to deface Anaheim Police Department websites, and posted a video that encouraged a boycott of the city that is home to Disneyland: “Do not travel there or spend your tourist dollars in Anaheim, CA."

    riekhavoc via Flickr.

    Anonymous Slideshow

    August 13, Uganda LGBT rights

    Anonymous attacked two Ugandan government websites for its proposed "Kill the Gays" bill. The hackers defaced the Prime Minister's site and left a message that included: "You should be PROUD of your LGBT citizens, because they clearly have more balls than you will ever have." The death penalty was removed from the bill in November, but the law would still allow those convicted of “aggravated homosexuality” to be sentenced to life imprisonment. Anonymous is reportedly preparing for a second round of attacks as the Ugandan government prepares to push this version of the bill through by late December.

    marcopaco via Flickr.

    Anonymous Slideshow

    September 4, FBI Laptop

    AntiSec, a group under the Anonymous umbrella, released one million Apple Device IDs to bring attention to alleged government surveillance, claiming that the IDs were swiped from an FBI laptop. However, The Guardian reported that the CEO of a web publishing company called Blue Toad acknowledged that the file details of the IDs matched those in Blue Toad's database. The FBI tweeted out that Anonymous' claim was "totally false." As a side note, in its statement about the hack, Anonymous added that it wouldn’t give interviews to journalists until Gawker published a photo of its writer Adrien Chen, who has been critical of the hackers, in a ballet tutu (which Gawker later did publish).

    anonymous_shadow via Flickr.

    Anonymous Slideshow

    September 26, Golden Dawn Attack

    When it was announced that the Greek neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party had opened up a New York office in hopes of gaining expat support, Anonymous promptly shut down its website. Next, the Twitter account @YourAnonNews posted the phone number of the party's Queens-based office and invited everyone to give the fascists a "warm welcome" to the neighborhood.

    Enigma-Chadto Group via Wikimedia.

    Anonymous Slideshow

    September 26, Philippine Cybercrime Prevention Act

    On September 12, The president of the Philippines, President Benigno Aquino III (featured), signed the Cybercrime Prevention Act into law. The law goes far beyond SOPA or PIPA by prohibiting not only file-sharing, but also cybersex, pornography, and most controversially, online libel. It also allows the government to monitor personal accounts on sites like Facebook and applications like Skype without a warrant, and institute penalties as high as 12 years in prison. The Philippine Star reported that "Anonymous Philippines" struck down several government web sites and replaced them with a statement against the Cybercrime Act, which called it “the most notorious act ever witnessed in the cyber history of the Philippines.”

    AP/ Tony Gutierrez.

    Anonymous Slideshow

    November 4, Stopping the Rove Machine

    Following the US Presidential election, a group self-named "The Protectors" that is believed to be made up of Anonymous hackers, released a statement saying that they had blocked Karl Rove’s scheme of digital vote theft in three states, and had monitored Rove’s henchmen as they unsuccessfully tried to crack Anonymous’ firewalls on election night, 105 times. According to the statement, the hacker group found out about Rove’s plans months in advance and coded firewalls in preparation, which apparently they didn’t put up until Election Day. The story is unsubstantiated, and some point out that it seemed unlikely that the GOP's Get Out The Vote system that Anonymous claimed to have hacked had the capability to rig votes. However, others remark that the story would help explain Ohio’s server problems around 11:00pm, and signs of Republican over-confidence such as Romney's unwritten concession speech and Rove’s delusional determination to keep counting votes.

    Tal King Photographer via Flickr.

    Anonymous Slideshow

    November 17, #OpIsrael

    In reaction to Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza, Anonymous staged a massive attack on nearly 700 Israeli websites on November 17, ranging from sites like those of the Foreign Ministry and Defense Force to those of local tourism companies. Anonymous had supported the Palestinian people from the outset of the Israeli offensive, releasing a statement: "For far too long, Anonymous has stood by with the rest of the world and watched in despair the barbaric, brutal and despicable treatment of the Palestinian people in the so called 'Occupied Territories' by the Israel Defense Force." Anonymous also shared a "Gaza Care Package," which included instructions in Arabic and English to assist Gazans if the Israeli government cut their Internet connection, as well as instructions on how to evade IDF surveillance and provide first aid. Throughout November, Anonymous conducted cyber-attacks against Israel, leaking personal information of 5,000 Israeli officials and hijacking the Israeli deputy Prime Minster’s Facebook and Twitter accounts and flooding them with pro-Palestinian messages.

    Syriana2011 via Flickr.

    Anonymous Slideshow

    November 29, Operation Syria

    In response to Bashar al-Assad’s shut down of the Internet in Syria, Anonymous released a statement explaining that although the Syrian regime had physically severed the fiber-optic cables coming into Syria, the hackers had been preparing with Syrian activists for well over a year and claimed that they had “produced and disseminated the Syrian Care Package” and that there were “emergency independent media centers already set up in every city of Syria.” Anonymous also set out shutting down Syrian embassy websites around the world, and other government sites.

    United States Department of State via Wikimedia Commons.

    Anonymous Slideshow

    December 1, Operation India Revenge

    A group claiming to be Anonymous defaced the website of the Minister of Communications and Information Technology Kapil Sibal (featured, left) with unflattering words about his mental capabilities. This was in response to Sibal's promotion of India’s IT Act, Section 66A, which calls for imprisonment of "any person who sends by any means of a computer resource... any information that is grossly offensive or has a menacing character,” and has led to arrests for “liking” a comment on Facebook and forwarding joke emails.

    @Huntermoore via Twitter.

    Anonymous Slideshow

    December 6, #OpHuntHunter, #OpAntiBully

    Anonymous shut down HunterMoore.tv, Hunter Moore's new site after his site "Is Anyone Up" (a platform to share pornographic images and personal information of past lovers) was closed for legal reasons. Anonymous also released Moore's personal details after the king of revenge porn said he would share addresses and other personal details of his exes on HunterMoore.tv.

    harbor88 via Flickr.

    Anonymous Slideshow

    December 16, Westboro Baptist Church and Sandy Hook Elementary

    The Westboro Baptist Church threatened to protest the funerals and vigils of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, which prompted a backlash from hacktivists. Anonymous took over the Twitter account of Shirley Roper-Phelps, the spokesperson for the church, hacked the church’s site (godhatesgays.com) and released names, phone numbers (including current hotel phone numbers, which the hacktivists encouraged followers to call and request that they refuse to host church members), home and email addresses, and the Social Security Numbers of select members. Anonymous tweeted that it had successfully filed for a death certificate for Roper-Phelps, preventing her from using her Social Security Number. Additionally, members of Anonymous (along with other hacktivists) have been promoting a White House petition that calls for the Westboro Baptist Church to be designated as a “hate group,” which has already garnered over 260,000 signatures. In an interesting turn of events, the DDoS and threat mitigation provider for the Westboro sites, a company called Black Lotus, announced that it would donate all of the revenue it has earned from the church to charity—after reaching out to @YourAnonNews for advice.

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Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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