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Modern field guide to security and privacy

The great Anonymous divide

While the Guy Fawkes masks associated with Anonymous are seen at youthful protests around the world, the hacktivist collective is far from being a unified global movement.

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    A protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, symbolic of the hacktivist group Anonymous.
    Yves Herman/Reuters/File
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The Anonymous movement of antiestablishment activists banding together to carry out virtual operations around the world was an American invention. Mostly young Internet agitators and pranksters in the US would set the agenda for the collective, and wannabes around the world would follow.

But that's no longer the case. There's now a growing divide between various partisans that claim the Anonymous moniker: The North American contingent is increasingly isolated by the rest of the community as Anonymous gains more traction in Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

This fissure, or lack of control over the movement, has been a few years in the making, but was most apparent after the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris. In the wake of the January terrorist attack, European members of Anonymous pushed for online revenge attacks on Islamic militant website under the hashtag #OpCharlieHebdo.

The hashtag was to be a show of support for an operation, or "op" in jargon, to launch distributed denial of service attacks, or DDoS, to shut down militant sites. Anonymous backers also defaced Islamic militant websites and attempted to have similar Twitter accounts shut down. The Twitter component of the operation continued and expanded against the Islamic State under #OpISIS.

The European Anonymous accounts were joined by Anonymous from all around the world, except their North American counterparts. "Large North American accounts or crews have not supported the ‘French Op’ in a fashion we are used to in high profile situations,” said Raymond Johansen, a global privacy activist on the FreeAnons Advisory board dedicated to freeing imprisoned Anonymous hacktivists, in an interview.

Established North American Anonymous accounts ignored, criticized, or mocked #OpCharlieHebdo and #OpISIS. Other American mouthpieces dismissed it as a “false flag,” meaning it was orchestrated by the CIA or some other government to distract from more important issues, damage Anonymous’ reputation or to instigate unrest for political purposes.

Despite being shunned by the established North American contingent, #OpCharlieHebdo and #OpISIS were both major PR successes. Both anti-terrorism projects were extensively covered by the media, created goodwill among the general public and drew new participates to the collective. “It was the largest op I have seen in over a year, with around 400-500 participants on the English-speaking [Internet Relay Chat],” wrote Gabriella Coleman, author of the new book, “Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous,” of #OpCharlieHebdo.

This type of success is indicative of established North American mouthpieces, or “the old guard,” losing their influence over the global collective, said Lorraine Murphy, a journalist who has been covering Anonymous for years.

Contrary to the established North American Anon fears, both #OpCharlieHebdo and #OpISIS did not make the collective look bad-- peruse the comment section of related news articles or tweets about both hashtags and you will find the opposite, people cheering for Anonymous. Media outlets are still writing about #OpISIS today.

The reasons for America’s inability to control the Anonymous movement has as much to do with the types of people who proclaim to be part of Anonymous as it does with the the nature of global politics today. For one, according to Mr. Johansen, within American-affiliated Anonymous there's a “general lack of cultural and political knowledge as it pertains to causes that are not directly connected to US affairs.” Both Coleman and Murphy were quick to point out Americans (within Anonymous) tend to be less bilingual than the rest of the world, which is also a factor.

For example, a handful of North American hacktivists explained they were suspicious of these anti-terrorism operations because they had never heard of Anonymous Belgium until the attack on Charlie Hebdo. (In reality, the Anonymous Belgium Twitter account was created in 2011, while their more active Facebook was created in 2012.) This is actually typical of the North American mouthpieces that claim to represent Anonymous. These mouthpieces will often ignore operations undertaken overseas except for ones they start themselves. An op initially launched in Latin American in support of the 43 missing college students later declared dead was not promoted by American, Canadian or British Anonymous outlets. In contrast, Anonymous in Denmark, Portugal, Brazil, Russia, and the Palestinian Territories showed support for #OpMexico and assisted – or so they claimed – in briefly taking down government websites in Mexico.

This is a far cry from operations just a few years ago, when it seemed Anonymous all over the world united under #OpTunisia and other Arab Spring-related projects, operations fueled, if not started by Anonymous in the United States. Compare those actions to Anonymous activities during Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution. Anonymous Asia was the driver, not a global Anonymous, and support from North American mouthpieces was superficial at best, and came in the form of retweeted news articles.

This loss of influence over the collective is reflective of how global politics are playing out within the darker corners of the Internet where Anonymous and likeminded hackers spend time. The Edward Snowden leaks that revealed pervasive National Security Agency monitoring of the Internet has led to a deep distrust of American Anonymous members.

"The ‘anti-American’ sentiments have become more and more a part of our conversations,” said Johansen.

Indeed, an influential and longtime Anonymous source in Europe said Americans are increasingly kept at a distance and maligned as “snitches." That term is frequently used to describe Hector Monsegur, a hacker known by his online pseudonym Sabu who was a prominent Anonymous member before becoming an FBI informant and building cases against 5 of his comrades. The revelations of his involvement with federal agents was a major blow to the trust that had existed within the Anonymous community, according to insiders. This has extended to the entire hacker community as well. “They hate the English and Americans,” said Poltergeist, a young British hacker and frequenter of hacker forums.  

It's also meant that much of the illegal activity North American Anonymous members may have pursued, such as hacks or a DDoS attack, are almost non-existent. Those types of action are happening “off shore, off American shores," said Coleman.

 The combination of NSA leaks and Sabu’s unmasking as an informant has sidelined the US among the global Anonymous network. If the US government’s intention was to discredit and impede American hackers and activists within Anonymous, it worked.

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