“We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We never forgive. We never forget. Expect us.”
This is the promise and rallying cry of Anonymous, a loosely-banded coalition of Web-savvy users with a not-so-radical agenda: freedom. Freedom of speech, expression, assembly and, most importantly, a free, unregulated Internet. Anarchists? Cyber terrorists? You may be familiar with their cause (ahem, the Bill of Rights), but you may not support their methods.
Brian Knappenberger’s brilliant documentary We Are Legion: The Story of Hacktivists chronicles the formation of Anonymous, their motives, their targets, and their mentality. The group is essentially an embodiment of the Web’s “chaotic freedom” and anonymity, the best and worst things about being faceless and nameless online. To the public, their face is that of famed freedom fighter Guy Fawkes, more specifically a single smirking mask of his face that became a symbol for mass revolution in the timely 2005 film V for Vendetta. It’s clownish, as one of Knappenberger’s experts says, like another pop culture agent of mayhem, the Joker.
Their origins begin with the legends of the computer industry: Microsoft founder Bill Gates pirating software. Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak defrauding the phone company. Even Mark Zuckerberg toppling campus networks with a website built from hacked private information. Criminal behavior is cemented into the foundation of the ‘Net, like it or not.
By ’85, the term “hacktivist” was coined to describe a hacker with a justifiable cause. In this case, just as it has been in recent months with SOPA and PIPA, the battle was over censorship and regulation of the Internet. Anonymous, the next generation of “hacktivists,” wouldn’t start forming until 2003. Web forums like 4chan allowed an unfiltered outlet for young geeks (like me) and the option of posting something filthy as simply “Anonymous.” It’s “Lord of the Flies,” as one person points out, and an anti-social network that churns out viral Internet memes.
Knappenberger carefully charts the evolution next, which involves pranks, “trolling,” and mild online disruptions for laughs, or “lulz.” Then, there was an obvious escalation, to targeting a bigot, and the group’s galvanization in a war against Scientology. The participants themselves — some masked, others not — describe the progression from the inside. A few seem self-important, others have had too much Red Bull, but most seem excited to belong to something where like minds share the same interests and sense of humor. Only, now a handful are being prosecuted for participating in direct denial of service, or “DDoS,” attacks. “Electronic sit-ins.”
The film explains and demonstrates the hackers’ simple DDoS tool, called the Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC), which overloads a system with information and temporarily shuts down a URL’s operation. Thousands at once can be devastating to even a sophisticated computer network, so a LOIC is a perfect metaphor for their coordinated, pinpoint efforts that effectively blasts a URL off the Web. Temporarily, though the damage during that time can be significant.
Backdoor exploits. SQL injection. IRC. Honeypots. Rainbow tables. Hashtag algorithms. MD5 encryption. It’s almost another language, which makes them an unknown, anonymous threat that has frightened top law enforcement agencies into action. This month, six members of the Anon off-shoot Lulz Security, or LulzSec, were arrested for numerous high-level hacks, including the Sony Playstation infiltration that cost the company over $150 million and affected 77 million consumers caught in the crossfire. Of course, these developments are too fresh for the finished film, but Knappenberger’s interviewees suggests the leaderless Anonymous collective doesn’t condone LulzSec’s destructive efforts and the negative attention they garner.
There was a similar rift in the Oscar-nominated doc If a Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front, which charted a criminal sect of a noble protest. We Are Legion is equally important and timely film, a fair representation of what is happening now in civil disobedience worldwide, as the Internet becomes a powerful tool in fringe assemblies like Occupy. Its detail-rich timeline includes how-to videos and tactics Anonymous used to aide protesters in Egypt last year and to combat oppressive censorship in Tunisia. Other members discuss operations in support of WikiLeaks, led by the most famous hacktivist, Julian Assange. The film likens them to a modern day Robin Hood and positions them on the front lines of a war to expose and humiliate “The Man.” Anonymous considers themselves “the last boss of the Internet.”
A prime example of this is the aforementioned fight over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). The line was drawn in the sand at restricting the free flow of information. Many of the millions of supporters protested on social networks, like Facebook, signed online petitions, or inundated their local representatives with email. A real digital revolution. Anonymous represented the rogue element, performing DDoS attacks and releasing damaging personal information.
Knappenberger is sympathetic to the membership, to a certain extent, but that’s the point. The question inevitably becomes: where do you draw the line? For most, it was when the swarm evolved from swapping harmless Internet memes, like “LOLcats.” More will understandably draw the line at stealing personal files and criminal attacks. But what if those personal emails were stolen from the murderous Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, which Anonymous exposed in February? What about when Anons knocked down websites that contained child pornography?
Knappenberger’s documentary deftly argues Anonymous can be a lasting force for chaotic good. “Scary in a good way,” one of his subjects says. Another, a scholar, quotes Philip K. Dick: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” The reality is clear just in the flurry of Anonymous activity after this film, each exposing another gaping vulnerability in “secure” government and corporate systems. Anonymous isn’t going away. It would be naive to think they would. They never forgive. They never forget. Expect them.