Who is Anonymous?
Updated: Jun 1, 2018
Whenever we meet people and discuss the issue of cybersecurity and 'hacking', questions around the hacking group Anonymous invariably pop up. We all associate Anonymous with the Guy Fawkes mask, video messages delivered with fake voices and faces, and numerous hacks around the world; but who is Anonymous?
According to Internet activist Gregg Housh, formerly with Anonymous, “It is an amorphous group of people that can include anyone who wants to use the brand to put forth their cause.” Housh also says that “Anonymous was conceived to be used and adopted by anyone.” On their own open website, the group describes themselves as “Cyber terrorists, freedom fighters, a group of hackers, revolutionaries or an organization? Anonymous is a movement. Anonymous has no leadership; if you believe in Anonymous, and call yourself Anonymous, you are Anonymous.” The Groups has been called a Legion, Collective and Movement at various times.
Many analysts point to the online message board and forum website called “4Chan” as the birthplace of Anonymous. On this site, all posts are anonymised where instead of a name, the term “Anonymous” appeared against each post. Anonymous posting was encouraged in order to promote free and open thought and ideas. Around, members of 4Chan started developing collective online pranks against on unsuspecting internet users such as the blocking of the pool on the online game Habbo and hacking Justin Beiber’s website.
Anonymous itself first came to public attention in January 2008 when an internal Scientology induction video featuring Tom Cruise was leaked on YouTube. The church, saying that the video was copyrighted, requested that YouTube remove it. Members of Anonymous, however, took issue with that request, and as part of what was named "Project Chanology," reportedly began launching distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks against Scientology websites, blanketed church offices with prank phone calls and faxes, and doxing the church by releasing its sensitive documents into the public domain on peer-to-peer networks and other platforms. As part of this “Operation”, a Youtube video was posted that included the now-common Anonymous sign-off:
"Knowledge is free. We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us."
The attack on Scientology also introduced the now synonymous Guy Fawkes mask when supporters donned the mask to hide their identities during protests in front of the churches offices. It is widely believed that this mask was adopted from the 2005 film V for Vendetta. However, the Group really came to public prominence during its defence of WikiLeaks where it launched multiple and crippling DDoS attacks on PayPal, MasterCard and Visa when these organisations blocked payments to WikiLeaks.
Anonymous has launched many well-known “AnonOps”, through global, online attacks on banks and financial institutions, support of the Occupy Movement, and launched DDoS strikes on government websites. The Group even declared war on Donald Trump (prior to his Presidency), though this has created in-fighting within the Group due to the operation going against free speech. The Group has also created operations against ISIS and other terrorist groups, and the Ku Klux Klan. In recent attacks, Anonymous has claimed responsibility for shutting down the London Stock Exchange.
Dozens of people have been arrested for involvement in Anonymous cyberattacks, in countries including the United States, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Spain, Turkey and even Australia.
Anonymous Attacks in Australia
In 2010, Hackers claiming to be part of Anonymous, launched Operation Titstorm, with successful DDoS attacks against government websites including the Parliament of Australia and Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. At one point, parliament’s website was taken-down after receiving 7.5 million hits a second, up from the normal rate of around a hundred per second. Titstrom was created in order to protest the government’s move to require the filtering of pornography.
In July 2012, Anonymous hacked Australian Internet Service Provider AAPT and openly published 40 GB of partially redacted customer, client and government data to protest against the government’s data retention policy and highlight the security risks involved with forcing companies to retain data. Some of the companies affected included the Brisbane City Council, Australian Federal Police, Australian Crime Commission, the Refugee Review Tribunal and Department of Defence.
Also in 2012, the Australian branch of the movement used its Twitter account to claim attacks on the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation's website and to issue a threat against the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD). One of the Tweets posted using the account @Op_Australia read: "#ASIO Down. Once Again! DSD! You're NEXT!" In 2015, an unemployed storeman admitted to inciting cyberattacks on these websites in retaliation for reports that Australian agencies had spied on Indonesia.
The Australian Federal Police and the Reserve Bank were victims of a successful DDoS cyberattack in 2011. A member of the activist-hacking group Anonymous Indonesia has reportedly claimed responsibility for the cyberattacks.
Command and Control?
Once operating, Anonymous propagated itself on the internet at a rapid pace, building a rapid online presence through official Twitter, Facebook and YouTube sites along with countless non-official, member based accounts. The Group also has its own website.
The use of Internet Relay Chat mechanisms and multiple social platforms allows a decentralised but at the same time, coordinated attacks across the internet. The Group claims that they have no command and control structure and that they "a very loose and decentralized command structure that operates on ideas rather than directives". The Anonymous loge features no head, signifying a leaderless organisation and anonymity.
Evaluations of the Group's actions and effectiveness vary with supporters calling the group freedom fighters and digital Robin Hoods while critics have described them as a cyber lynch-mob and cyber terrorists. In 2012, Time Magazine announced Anonymous as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Whatever the case, the Group has caused significant disruption around the globe across a multitude of government agencies and commercial organisations and is a constant and evolving threat that needs to be taken seriously.