Anonymous - Better The Devil We Don't Know?

Anonymous is promising that “something big” is coming in the next few days. It’s impossible to speculate on what its latest hack might be, but it is a good time to look at the morals of hacktivism.

Programmers and hackers have a knack for picking intellectually satisfying titles and Anonymous is no different. Mainstream media often refer to Anonymous as a group, but even that is stretching the reality. No, Anonymous are, by definition, anonymous. Anyone can be part of Anonymous as long as they stay anonymous. In their words, “We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us”.

Anonymous originally sprang up to oppose the practice of organisations such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Their primary weapon of choice has been distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks against the websites of organisations who have supported the likes of the RIAA and MPAA; this has even included the CIA and FBI.

Anonymous also hack into systems and obtain secret information. The Metropolitan Police and FBI were recently embarrassed when a recording of a phone call between their cybercrime units was discovered and published by Anonymous. Last summer, Anonymous hacked into NATO systems and obtained “restricted” information, which it announced via its Twitter account. However, their tweet also stated that it would be “irresponsible” for them to publish any of the data.

That was just one of several instances that highlight a noticeably moderate approach from such an anarchistic movement. As further evidence that Anonymous isn’t just recklessly hacking for fun, last year when it crossed swords with a Mexican drugs cartel, it eventually relented from its threat of revealing the names of collaborators for fear of lethal reprisals.

Similarly, WikiLeaks released uncomfortable and embarrassing data about governments and military operations – but nothing that would endanger the lives of individuals on active national security operations. The difference between WikiLeaks and Anonymous is that the people in charge were traceable. This made it easier for authorities to bring the site down after a string of disclosures. Unfortunately for our politicians and security services, Anonymous doesn’t have a main office to raid.

Let’s contrast this to the groups that Anonymous usually oppose – intellectual property organisations like the RIAA and MPAA. Those and other lobbyists want proposals like SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA to be made law in the USA and internationally. These groups continually attempt to enlist draconian support from governments, rather than moving with the times. They are setting dangerous precedents on free speech by what can and can’t be regarded as fair use. Therefore, having a moderate foil to such backward looking organisations is a good thing for society in general. The world of intellectual property rights will eventually catch up with the age of the Internet in which information can be infinitely copied – probably when all of today’s children grow up and start running things. Until then, ordinary consumers are going to be collateral damage as content publishers try to keep telling us how to consume their our content.

Looking to Anonymous as some sort of modern day Robin Hood presents the same problem as with any vigilante group – there is zero accountability. We have no guarantees that their interpretation of right and wrong will not change for the worse, or that the group will drift from its original intentions. Because of the way that Anonymous works, it is also completely vulnerable to a smear campaign. All it would take is a few carefully chosen hacks done in the name of Anonymous by its opponents to discredit them.

We have a Faustian Pact – Anonymous often highlight security holes in sensitive areas before more nefarious forces find them. They also stand against those who are slowing down any hope for copyright and intellectual property reform. How long will the equilibrium last?

Like Lawrence Lessig said – “I think, with important exceptions, breaking the law is immoral, even if the law itself should be changed. So I think the law governing copyright should change” [Source].

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