How Anonymous channels 'the will of the people' (Q&A)

A member of Anonymous tells CNET why the activist effort targets government and corporate Web sites, even in the face of arrest, and why it has your best interests at heart.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
6 min read

The Anonymous online activists do keep themselves busy. When they're not defacing Web sites to protest the for-profit prison system or shutting down the public CIA site they're listening in as Scotland Yard and the FBI discuss how to catch them and having a good laugh.

This week, they've ratcheted things up even more by working with WikiLeaks to publish secret stolen e-mails that shine some light on what appear to be the inner workings of Stratfor, a global intelligence firm that seems to have paid informants to monitor, among other things, human rights and environmental activists on behalf of Dow Chemical after the Bhopal disaster, and that allegedly considered using the intelligence it gathers from insiders to grow a strategic investment fund. The company has declined to confirm or deny the contents of the e-mails released, except to suggest that some of them may be forged or altered while some may be authentic.

And Anonymous, which worked with the Occupy Wall Street movement to promote those protests last year and helped organize local offshoots in different cities, is teaming again with the political movement on "Occupy the Vote 2012," encouraging people to vote out lawmakers who aren't protecting their online and offline rights.

CNET interviewed an "Anon" to try to learn what the thinking is behind the movement and why someone would risk jail to break into the computer network or cripple the Web site of a company or government agency. Because of the legal risks involved with the activities, the person interviewed declined to be identified.

So when was the data that is being released this week actually stolen from Stratfor?
Anon: A couple of times in December.

And why was Stratfor targeted?
Anon: Any organization that fancies itself above the law and is willing to put ethics aside in order to make money is always a target. Especially those who work with the U.S. and foreign governments.

How was Stratfor compromised?
Anon: By demonstrating they are, in fact, not the security agency they parade around as. These are the guys in charge of issues of national security? Try again. These guys are in a whole other business entirely and it seems [even from the e-mails] that IT was never an effective means of security for companies in their business strategy, let alone their own.

No technical details?
Anon: It's currently under investigation by the FBI and some Anons have been arrested. I'd say we focus on the information that has come to light. I will only say, BlackBerrys aren't the most secure mobile platform for obvious reasons, but these guys were "experts," right?

So why risk arrest with these compromises and attacks? Is it worth it?
Anon: There is a moral obligation for those who see injustices being committed by individuals who are purely driven by greed. The people of Bhopal had no chance against the sheer amount of money that was to be spent on silencing those who suffered from having justice that was due, or even a voice. Today their voices have been heard across the world and the perpetrators exposed. This is worth risking everything for.

Anonymous has also successfully targeted government agencies and security firms, which one would think would be spending a lot of resources on securing their own networks. How is it that a loosely organized band of "rag tag" hackers can so easily pick them apart?

Anon: Well therein lies the propaganda these types of experts spout on one hand ["rag tag"], then when things go ill in their favor say we're a threat to national security. Let's just say that these companies aren't in the business of "security" per se. They're more involved in a darker world involving the corrupt financial, political, and military systems. [Government security contractor] HBGary is a shining example of this. Financial institution wants a group of "activists" to go away, asks a corrupted political system for help, and thus are referred to companies like HBGary and Stratfor to make the "problem" disappear.

It seems like the attacks on the U.S. government sites like that of the CIA and Senate have mostly been DDoS and not data dumps, or at least there didn't seem to be any truly sensitive government information released. That type of sensitive information has come out of their contractors and partners, like Stratfor and HBGary Federal, right? Does that mean the government networks are at least somewhat more secure than those of their private partners?
Anon: The RSA attack should be enough to showcase the technical capabilities.

But RSA wasn't done by Anonymous, or was it?
Anon: No one is Anonymous. The government sites going down allows for a clear message to be sent to those parties. Sometimes the press takes an interest in them. Sometimes that's not the best method. Every target is special.

It seems ike there's been a shift among Anonymous toward more high-minded, noble activism, i.e. pro-democracy, anti-SOPA, pro voting, and away from the hacking-for-fun pranks. Would you agree?
Anon: I would disagree and say that since the early days the modus operandi has been very consistent.

So the promoting and organizing of Occupy protests and BART protests, was that typical for Anonymous?
Anon: I'd argue that the people are beginning to wake up and realize the strength of their unified peaceful protests, both behind a computer, in the streets, or personal protest. Whether it's the Arab Spring, Wall Street or BART, there needs to be someone saying "this is not OK."

Anonymous and Occupy buddy up (photos)

See all photos

How successful has Anonymous been in galvanizing that sentiment outside of its hive?
Anon: I think all you have to do is look around the world and see the level of civil unrest. Ten years ago this was not happening. Now people are standing up in whatever way they see fit to make their voices heard. On the inverse, there are people for whom part of their personal protests are helping to change things from inside governments and companies. This is where an outlet like WikiLeaks is so important, especially when you look at those who, by way of corrupt politics would normally be a whistle blower, is now a criminal. WikiLeaks gives them a place to do this.

But if all the online activists are rounded up and put in jail, how does that help the long-term cause? Can't things be changed without the computer activities that the government has deemed illegal?
Anon: Well, as much as all of the private prison lobbyists would enjoy that new business opportunity, that's not how the real world works. Any corrupt political system is going to make the ability for voices to be heard illegal to preserve its perverted ideas of politics.

What about the occasional digital vandalism type of Web defacements that LulzSec and other Anon affiliates do that seem to be purely a poke in the eye to cops or "The Man?" Doesn't that detract from the larger message and purpose, and potentially turn off sympathizers?
Anon: Look at the police brutality that took place during peaceful Occupy protests because the city officials deemed it to be illegal for them to be there for any reason. But doesn't it seem more likely these companies, banks, and governments invited such things when they began to behave like sociopaths?

True. Nonviolent protest and civil disobedience definitely have their place. But the guys throwing rocks into store windows could have harmed the cause -- just like people got mad with the OpBart campaign when a few Anons released BART customer data pilfered from the BART server.
Anon: Anytime you get a large number of people together for any reason, whether it be a political rally, sporting event, or even a peaceful protest, it's going to attract a few who act outside of the reason people have assembled.

No comment. I think we've covered it, other than the requisite question of guess-timates as to how many people are actively involved in the Anonymous movement. Some people like to portray Anonymous as disenfranchised youth with nothing but time on their hands to cause trouble. Can you comment on that?
Anon: To the earlier point, these are regular everyday people from any and all backgrounds. We don't discriminate.

Ha! Like the 99 percent, but online?
Anon: More like "the will of the people."

Anything else you would like to add?
Anon: There are future operations planned in the way of everything from campaign finance reform, to elections, to infosec, and much, much more, stay tuned. Expect us.