Nicholas Pell
Mar 3, 2012

Recent developments with Anonymous

Anonymous continues to make headlines. In recent weeks, the hacktivist group has hacked the mail server of the Syrian Ministry of Presidential Affairs, raiding 78 inboxes of the regime’s staffers. Allegedly, one of the most common passwords was “12345.” On February 10, the group brought down the CIA’s website for over five hours in response to a leaked conversation between the FBI and Scotland Yard. Following a round of Interpol arrests on February 28, Interpol’s website went down briefly.

However, there was also a small chink in the group’s armor. A planned attack against the Vatican, in response to the continued child sex abuse scandal that has rocked the church for over a decade, failed to take down a website associated with Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Madrid. The attempted attack also provided investigators with their first end-to-end account of an attack, one that will likely provide a number of clues about the organization, its makeup and its methods.

We sat down to speak to Josh Shaul, Chief Technology Officer of Application Security, Inc. about who Anonymous is. The answer? “As far as the specific who goes, we have very little idea,” says Shaul, perhaps pointing out the obvious about an organization called 'Anonymous.' He does point out, however, that “We know something about them anecdotally and from the folks who have been arrested.” Shaul notes that in the recent Interpol arrests, ages ranged from 17 to 40. This lays bare the myth that these are little more than scruffy hackers operating out of their parents basement. In a previous interview with Patexia, Shaul stated that “I’d be shocked to find that there aren’t people who are in charge of security for major banks or head programmers at major technology firms.”

Who they are and where they come from isn’t clear in the specifics. However, Shaul points out that activity and arrest records paint a portrait of a group diverse in both age and geographic location. “Here in the States, we don’t hear much about what Anonymous does abroad. There have been attacks on Colombian energy companies. So Anonymous is doing a lot more than the stuff we’re seeing here.”

It might have been easy to peg Anonymous as a bunch of merry pranksters during the early days of Habbo Hotel raids, or even their Scientology raids, dubbed Project Chanology. However, the Arab Spring showed that Anonymous were more than just that. While there’s certainly an element of pranksterism to Anonymous (who are big fans of 'lulz,' a corrupted version of the Internet exclamation 'LOL'), the group have picked targets that few people would have an easy task defending. From Arab dictators to the Church of Scientology to the Zeta Cartel in Mexico, Anonymous are an Internet David targeting real world Goliaths -- and winning more often than not.

Scientology provides an illustrative example. While always viewed somewhat skeptically by the broader population, Project Chanology might have potentially crippled future recruitment. Any response to Anonymous was bound to leave the Church looking worse for its own efforts. Indeed, all the Church of Scientology really succeeded in doing was giving Anonymous a plethora of new YouTube video footage of Anons being harassed by church members.

Further, the Arab Spring seems to be the ultimate litmus test for the group. Rather than playing the role of merry pranksters, Anonymous went out of their way to protect, defend and assist a population under siege from brutal dictatorships. “In the Arab World,” Shaul says, “these guys are really in a fight or die situation. This is also true of the guys taking on the Zeta Cartel.”

The media aren’t the only ones taking note. The National Security Agency (NSA), recently declared that in the next two years Anonymous would be a significant threat to national security. “I was blown away that they made that statement publicly,” says Shaul, adding “I think what they’re saying is that we’ve just classified Anonymous as a terrorist group and will use anti-terrorist measures against them. They’re also saying ‘we’re afraid of these guys.’” The consequences of such classifications aren’t purely academic. “Being considered a terrorist is very different from being considered a regular criminal,” Shaul says, noting the effect this might have on recruitment: “A lot of folks who participate and like the cause might not be ready to die for it.”

The classification of Anonymous as a terrorist group raises the old conundrum about one man’s terrorist being another man’s freedom fighter. While the group has gotten into some mischief, most targets are hard to defend politically (such as Scientology or the Zeta Cartel) or are loudmouths basically asking for attention (such as UFC President Dana White, who publicly declared that he was not afraid of the group before being shown why he ought to be).

One thing is certain: As the 21st Century becomes more and more interesting, expect Anonymous.