A detailed account of the hacker collective Anonymous and its splinter group, LulzSec.
In 2008, the website Gawker published a leaked video of a wild-eyed Tom Cruise cheerleading for Scientology, a video the Church of Scientology had been trying to suppress. The church retaliated by issuing a copyright violation against YouTube, where the video had eventually ended up. When the news reached 4chan—a site originally for discussion of Japanese anime that spread to include other Internet subcultures—a user posted a suggestion to one of its message boards: Hack the Scientology website. “It’s time to use our resources to do something we believe is right,” the post read. The idea quickly gained traction, and a handful of users banded together to lead a nebulous group of hackers and Internet activists collectively known as Anonymous. They not only took down the Scientology website, but went on to attack other targets, including the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church and the Tunisian government. Eventually, a faction of Anonymous split off on its own, called LulzSec; rather than attacking oppressors of free expression, they attacked companies just for the sake of publicly embarrassing them for laughs, or “lulz” (a play on LOL, the internet abbreviation for “laugh(ing) out loud”). The events that Forbes London bureau chief Olson describes are captivating, such as the story of how Jennifer Emick, a former Anonymous supporter and “middle-aged mom from Michigan,” managed to track down and identify Hector Monsegur, one of Anonymous’ chief hackers. However, the book is choked by jargon (though Olson provides a much-needed glossary) and lengthy, tiresome descriptions of the group’s juvenile and petty squabbling, infighting and back-stabbing. The attention lavished on the minutiae of these relationships diminishes the impact of the narrative.
Certain to thrill 4chan readers, hackers and others on the Internet’s fringe, but may struggle to hold the interest of casual readers.
In Flawed, Epic Anonymous Book, the Abyss Gazes Back
Based on the
It’s hard to report on Anonymous.
It’s a non-organization of pranksters-turned-activists-turned-hackers-turned-hot-mess-of-law-enforcement-drama — a story that is hard to get, and hard to write.
To work with a secretive and hunted group requires making many non-obvious choices. One of the unnamed but extensively quoted hackers in Forbes London bureau chief Parmy Olson’s new book on the group, titled We Are Anonymous, told me once that anons were “by nature deceptive” — and they are. (How do I know it’s the same person? I recognized their way of talking. Then I asked.)
Anons lie when they have no reason to lie. They weave vast fabrications as a form of performance. Then they tell the truth at unexpected and unfortunate times, sometimes destroying themselves in the process. They are unpredictable. The nihilistic fury that Olson describes in the lifestyle of young anons goes in every direction, including inward, and it often spills over onto people like Olson and me for no obvious reason.
You can’t follow the money in Anonymous, or look at the power structures, or hunt for a greater rationale in a collective that on most days doesn’t have one. But we still have to make the choice about what we believe, why, and how it fits into a larger picture. We use circumstances, gut instincts, and plenty of what hackers call social engineering to tease out the evidence we need to write about the collective, to fulfill our role in the story.
Make no mistake, we have a role. You just can’t not join. It’s impossible to not be part of the thing, when the thing uses the media to talk to itself.
So what makes Parmy Olson’s We Are Anonymous so frustrating is that it plays the narrative straight, as if these issues don’t exist at all...
...Journalism is part of a world of institutions, hierarchies, and social traditions codified by nation states and organizations. We create laws and rules to control who gets to do things that matter, so we can concentrate power where we want it. It’s meant to create a predictable world we can inhabit within Nature’s capricious grasp. The tools of journalism were built for this world, it’s what shaped our rhetoric and narrative. It’s partly why we’re always so keen on printing people’s titles, or age, or race, placing them within a hierarchy, telling you how important they are. The techniques of contemporary journalism are the Big Man theory of history, writ small and fast.
Anonymous breaks all that, and it’s a huge headache. But for reporters who had to file stories on the group, the rise of Lulzsec, an exclusive club of hacker elites that acted just like the normal world from within the larger collective, was a godsend. It finally provided a fast way to tell an outrageous and popular story, and we responded with predictable enthusiasm.
And that’s how Parmy Olson gets around the problems of writing about Anonymous — by not actually writing much about Anonymous. Her real topic is Lulzsec. In the 414 pages of Olson book, she only explores the worldwide collective where it’s relevant to the formation of the small spinoff group of six that burned intensely for a few weeks in the summer of 2011, drawing media attention like no hacker group before...
Olson’s technical explanations are stilted, forced, and repetitive. Written in the kludgy language of a non-native speaker who is not particularly interested in the language she’s speaking, they are her weakest point in laying out the landscape of Anonymous (or even Lulzsec). A DDoS attack is flooding a target with junk traffic, 15 men trying to get through a revolving door at the same time, and a flood of visitors — all in the space of a single paragraph in chapter 5.
This kind of journalism is fundamentally disrespectful of technical culture. Like British pop stars singing about being African children, it appropriates and discards the culture as if it were an object. It’s where the idea that all hackers are teenage basement dwellers comes from and it’s a frustrating disservice to an increasingly diverse community that often faces not just social alienation, but prosecution from the US government, and sometimes much worse elsewhere.
Take the sequence of events in the Lulzsec hack of the FBI associated Infraguard in chapter 21, where Olson describes Sabu wiping a server clean:
“[A]nd, on a seeming whim, typed rm -rf /*. It was a short, simple-looking piece of code with a notorious reputation: anyone who typed it into his computer’s back end could effectively delete everything on the system. There was no window popping up to ask Are you sure? It just happened. Web trolls famously got their victims to type it in or to delete the crucial system 32 file in Windows.”
If you’re not technically inclined, this seems like gibberish. If you are, you know it’s gibberish. A UNIX command (rm) is not code, it’s for the command line interface, (hence no window popping up). It has nothing to do with Windows, and system32 is a directory, not a file. This example is particularly bad, but not isolated.
Is it too much to ask that journalism’s experts on Anonymous be clear on the difference between UNIX and Windows? Or be able to explain what an IP address is? The tech media in large part has spent the last 15 years answering yes, in this and every other technology coverage area. It’s too much to require journalists understand the technology they’re writing about. But as the world of geeks just becomes the world, ignorance becomes less excusable.
We’re all on deadlines, and dealing with tighter budgets and more demands in journalism, but after a point, negligence slips over the line into exploitation. We’re getting it wrong and not caring as long as it draws in readers.
There’s no sign to me that this is what Olson thinks, but it is what she embodies in her reporting. Lulzsec/Antisec brought in readers, no subtlety or analysis needed. They attracted – one might even argue demanded — reporting marked by speed and sensationalism, which is the oldest path to lazy writing...
Antisec, and Lulzsec before it, enjoyed huge media attention from people like Olson and myself, to the point where they marginalized more effective anon ops around the Arab Spring and political resistance to anti-internet laws like ACTA — even when sometimes these ops were done by the same people. Olson and I both covered this the wrong way. We should have seen Antisec as one phenomenon among many, not as a group we could finally treat like rock stars, a group that made our job easy...
From within Anonymous’s sea of voices, all experimenting with new ways of being in the world, the only voices in Olson’s book are those of the small groups of hackers who stole the limelight from a legion, defied their values, and crashed violently into the law. It was a mediagenic story to be sure, but in the end, it turns out to be not the real story of Anonymous, and not a story with any real meaning.