Anonymous and LulzSec: Robin Hoods of the Web?
Hackers are usually shadowy, secretive figures. So why are Anonymous and LulzSec dancing in the lime light, painting themselves as charismatic outlaws?
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"We are busy fighting evil governments, agencies, and corporations," Anonymous bragged on its public Twitter feed. In a second message, the group instructed its opponents to "give up. You don't want to battle the #AntiSec fleet of the Internet."Skip to next paragraph
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The roguishly charming hacker, of course, is not a particularly new conceit. For decades, so-called hacktivists have busted into all manner of websites, frequently spinning their exploits as the last-ditch efforts of freedom fighters in a corporate world gone bad. In turn, these hackers have been immortalized in popular media – consider the cyberpunk novels of William Gibson or the massively successful "Matrix" movies.
And why not? The late 20th and early 21st centuries have seen an unprecedented digitizing of daily life, from "intelligent" kitchen appliances to the omnipresent smart phone. Technology surrounds us, and yet so much of it remains nebulous, corporatized, and distant. It's no surprise that many of the denizens of the Web have sympathized with or cheered on hacker activists – they are digital Davids standing against modern-day Goliaths.
What is surprising is the alacrity with which today's hackers have warmed to, and sought to solidify, their image as latter-day Robin Hoods. Hacking, after all, is a shadowy science, usually practiced by computer experts in backrooms or basement hideaways. It is also a solitary pursuit – Anonymous is technically a coalition, but its members communicate mostly through the Web. Historically, hackers have never particularly wanted to get caught: By keeping their identities secret and their actions quiet, they stay out of the cross hairs of law enforcement or the crack teams of security pros employed by major corporations.
"This is the first time we've had hackers who want you to know who they are," says Chester Wisniewski, a senior adviser at Sophos, a computer security company. "These guys are awesome at PR. It's very impressive. They are inspirational to a lot of people. They get tons of feedback. They make people believe that they are standing up for the little man."
Indeed, the antics of the "Anti-Sec fleet" have almost always played out in direct view of the public. Speaking to Britain's Guardian newspaper in July, LulzSec spokesman "Topiary" described his interactions with the media as a visceral "thrill," and confessed that the public response gave LulzSec "more reasons to leak more." To look at it another way, the louder the response, the more aggressive the hacks. LulzSec was learning to perform for the crowd.
Wide spectrum of political views
Other hackers, however, are certainly in it for more than the "lulz." Gabriella Coleman, a professor of media and culture at New York University and the author of a forthcoming book on Anonymous, says the group's members represent a wide spectrum of political consciousness.
"Some are very involved in human rights activism – very ideologically driven," she says. "Some aren't."
Dr. Coleman points to that group's 2008 and 2009 assault on the Church of Scientology over the perception that the church uses legal action to stifle free discussion about Scientology's practices. Anonymous provoked a strong response from church leaders and a media firestorm. To a lesser extent, the hack of the Arizona DPS can also be judged a success, in that it embarrassed a major government organization and drew attention – however fleeting – to a political cause.