Photo by: Joseph Nicolia (flickr)
Photo by: Joseph Nicolia (flickr)

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I’d say just about everyone in the information security world has heard of the Anonymous hackers “collective,” the notorious vigilantes – or perhaps cyber criminals – who seem to be behind all the major headlines when it comes to major cyber intrusions these days. Prior to Anonymous, there were few “big name” hacker organizations, and the general public rarely thought about just how sophisticated and persistent such groups could be.

No matter what you think about its members, Anonymous is different. It is more high-profile, aware of public relations, and ready to claim a social agenda. Anonymous has been involved, perennially or directly, in a wide variety of major debates about the future of online technology and the Internet: Everything from recent revelations about domestic spying on Americans to their decision to mirror the website of a man who blogged his plan to commit suicide.

But who and what are they? Let’s take a closer look.

Origins of the Anonymous Hackers

The most common imagery associated with Anonymous today is of the Guy Fawkes mask. Long before everyone knew about things like lolcats and Grumpy Cat, Anonymous was making its mark on various sites across the Internet. The group we now know as Anonymous is believed to have originated with chance meetings of like-minded people around 2003. Early Anonymous attacks demonstrated a salty sense of humor and took the form of “trolling.”

“Trolling” is a broad term that can apply to many and basic types of hacking that involve using large numbers of user connections to briefly cripple a site. However, in the early 2000s there were still different forms of cyber-bullying, harassment, relatively few reports of cyber-bullying, and most Anonymous “troll” attacks were brief pranks with an obvious attempt at twisted humor.

Anonymous and “Hacktivism”

In the early part of the 2000s, Anonymous was mostly associated with satirical websites related to Internet “trolling” or drama. A few small attacks against fringe social media websites took place in the early period, but no one imagined that the group would coalesce into an organized, international force. That began to change as members of Anonymous shifted their attention toward the alleged abuses of Scientology toward its members and the public.

By 2008, public awareness of Scientology was growing thanks to the outspoken behaviors of several celebrity Scientologists, especially Tom Cruise. Around this time, a wave of former Scientologists made efforts to reveal what they claimed were abusive and cult-like practices within the organization. Using its money and connections with prominent celebrities, the Church of Scientology launched major legal efforts to preserve the secrecy of its organization.

Many Anonymous members believed that the Church of Scientology had been and was involved in wrongdoing. This eventually led to a major Distributed Denial of Service attack in which Anonymous members used specialized software to conceal their IP address and flood servers associated with Scientology websites. Mass protests also took place, with protesters claiming that they donned masks in public to prevent legal reprisals from the Church of Scientology.

Anonymous Today

While it’s hard to be sure and independent confirmation is scarce, members of the Anonymous “collective” have claimed responsibility for a wide variety of attacks. Anonymous statements have often claimed that these attacks were related to free speech concerns and efforts to stop large corporations from abusing their power over end users and customers. For example:

Anonymous was heavily involved in efforts to prevent the passage of SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, which they claimed would severely curtail fair use of copyrighted materials (such as fan-art and fan-fiction, for example) and give ISPs expanded ability to spy on users.

Anonymous is credited with some actions in support of the Arab Spring uprisings, including the development of mirror sites and firewall work-arounds that were intended to prevent totalitarian regimes from blocking Internet communication in affected countries.

In 2011, Anonymous members attacked a prominent child pornography site and released personal information related to member accounts, contributing to a large number of arrests and the removal of the site from the Internet.

Anonymous members have also been associated with more unpopular attacks, such as hacking Sony’s PlayStation 3 Network in a purported protest of the company’s efforts to stop hobbyists from modifying PlayStation 3 hardware.

The Verdict

And what do I think? Well, the question is complicated.

Since there are few individuals or groups that can be singled out within Anonymous, it’s difficult to know whether its next act will be one of protest, vandalism, or straight-out cyber-terror. Though some actions might appear laudable, it’s important that the average computer user take steps to protect themselves from being needlessly harassed by cyber criminals – every hacking event has potentially dangerous and unexpected consequences! One of the most effective ways to protect yourself is to use industry-leading Norton 360 software to protect all your online devices.

More Information & News About Anonymous:

Wired: How Anonymous Picks Targets, Launches Attacks, And Takes Powerful Organizations Down

The Guardian: Ongoing and Up-To-The-Minute Coverage on Anonymous