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The roots of ‘Anonymous,’ the infamous online hacking community

September 3, 2014 at 6:39 PM EST
As online hacking becomes more common, interest in the individuals and groups behind such cyber attacks rises. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with David Kushner of The New Yorker on the origins of one of the most infamous hacking groups, “Anonymous.”
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JUDY WOODRUFF: It seems that a week doesn’t go by without a significant story about hacking or cyber-attacks of some kind. Just this week, there have been new concerns over the posting of celebrity photos and a potential credit card breach at Home Depot.

One online community known as Anonymous often captures some of the biggest headlines for their hacks.

Earlier this week, Hari Sreenivasan recorded a conversation in our New York studios about its origins.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Hackers who self-organize under the collective name Anonymous have been involved in cyber-attacks on everything from corporations to intelligence agencies to local governments, even at one point the “NewsHour” Web site.

In this week’s issue of “The New Yorker,” David Kushner takes a close look at Anonymous in an article, “How Anonymous Incited Online Vigilantism from Tunisia to Ferguson.”

He joins me now.

So, Anonymous has a slogan, says, “We are legion.”  Who are Anonymous or what is Anonymous?  How are they organized?

DAVID KUSHNER, The New Yorker: Well, Anonymous is an international collection of hackers and protesters and geeks.

Fundamentally, it’s sort of a hard thing to wrap one’s mind around, because you think of organizations as being groups, and groups who have leaders, and they have committees and meetings, but, you know, Anonymous is sometimes referred to as a hive, a swarm. It is — it is somewhat chaotic. There are no real leaders.

There are people who organize different actions at different points in time. But, essentially, you know, what — they have evolved over the past, you know, 10 years or so from an organization that was mainly looking for what are called lulz, so for kind of laughs on the Internet, to a really strong force for social change and protest.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You document a lot of these denial-of-service attacks.

DAVID KUSHNER: Right.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How significant are they?  What can they do to a company or a government?

DAVID KUSHNER: Mm-hmm.

Well, there’s a lot of concern about these denial-of-service attacks. And what that basically means is, when you hear about Web sites that are taken down, this is often the method that’s used. And the way that it works is that a Web site is essentially swamped with so many requests that it can’t handle it, so that it will crash.

On one side, you have the protesters, such as those in Anonymous, and they say, you know, for us, this is a form of protest, this is like blocking the entrance to a restaurant or a bank or something like that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Kind of a civil rights thing.

DAVID KUSHNER: That’s the way they will frame it.

But then, on the other hand, you will have the businesses or the city governments who have all been subjected to these attacks. And you have businesses like PayPal, which was attacked, and they claimed I think damages of $5 million, something like this. You have city governments.

The person I wrote about in the “New Yorker” story who goes by the name Commander X, one of his actions was against the city of Santa Cruz, and he took down the city Web site for about 20 minutes. So, you know, you will have governments say that this is disrupting the service, their ability to get information out. Businesses are claiming loss of revenues, so there’s these two sides to it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, how — there is kind of an interesting distinction. How skilled are these people?  Because, on the one hand, you kind of point out that not all of them are actually really gifted computer…

DAVID KUSHNER: Right.

HARI SREENIVASAN: … hackers.

DAVID KUSHNER: Right.

HARI SREENIVASAN: On the other hand, parts of Homeland Security, or the FBI or CIA…

DAVID KUSHNER: Right.

HARI SREENIVASAN: … are very concerned about the threat and they are saying they could take down real important public infrastructure.

DAVID KUSHNER: You’re right.

And one of the parts of the story, what I’m reporting on is a few years ago, there were briefings on Capitol Hill about this idea about this threat of Anonymous. Keith Alexander at the time was saying — suggesting that Anonymous had the capability to attack power grids.

There are some people who say that was essentially beating the drum for some legislation at the time. But, you know, to think about Anonymous, again, thinking about them as this hive, within that hive, there are some extremely gifted hackers, very sophisticated hackers who could do a great deal and can cause a lot of damage.

But after reporting on this for the last year or so, the collective wisdom is that maybe 20 percent of the people who identify as Anonymous are actually hackers, and that the other 80 percent or so are just kind of protesters, you know, like I said, geeks, disenfranchised. It’s become kind of a catchall for all of that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And you have also got an interesting phrase in your story. It’s that you have called some of their actions influential, but irresponsible.

And the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case, where this high school teenager was raped…

DAVID KUSHNER: Right.

HARI SREENIVASAN: … they actually ended up figuring out a way to get a very important cell phone video out to the public.

But, at the same time, they also kind of released an unredacted court document which ended up outing the victim’s name as well.

DAVID KUSHNER: Right. Right.

In that case and in others, most recently Ferguson, to a great deal, you know, the way that — their approach is that they’re — they come back to the clearinghouse of information, and they’re trying to get it out there very quickly. They’re not really taking the time to verify everything.

I think they — it’s sort of a WikiLeaks model, in a way, where they’re going out and say, look, here’s all this information coming in, here are videos, here are testimonials. You all make sense of it, you all meaning the general public, or the media, or whomever.

So — and, sometimes, in that kind of fire hose blast of data and media, there will be some things that are impactful, such as that video, and then there will be things that aren’t. And there will be things that are problematic, such as in Ferguson when, you know, there was a rush to identify the — who is the officer who shot Michael Brown, and Anonymous or someone representing Anonymous released the wrong name.

And I spoke with the person who was named, and he basically feels like his reputation has been just ruined forever.

HARI SREENIVASAN: He stayed in his home for a week from death threats, right?

DAVID KUSHNER: He was — he was under police watch for about a week in his home. And just — he describes himself as kind of a quiet, hardworking civil servant who suddenly has the attention of the kind of hackers of the world and the people in Ferguson who wanted a name.

And there were people within Anonymous who did come out and apologize for this, but, you know, it is — there is an element of chaos to all of this.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, the article about Anonymous is in this week’s “New Yorker.”

David Kushner, thanks so much for joining us.

DAVID KUSHNER: Thanks for having me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And one footnote:  Since Hari recorded that conversation, it’s been found that some of the celebrity photos of Jennifer Lawrence and others were posted on an online bulletin board affiliated with Anonymous. But it’s not clear whether Anonymous had a role in the hacking itself.