Who Are Those ‘Anonymous’ WikiLeak Hacktivists?

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Anonymous — the self-appointed "hacktivist" group behind today's DDOS attacks against companies that stopped serving WikiLeaks — suddenly seems to be all over the Internet. This morning, they took down Mastercard's website, which is now back online, and this afternoon, Visa's site appears to be inaccessible. "Operation Payback," as Anonymous has dubbed its reign of cyber-vengeance on the whistle-blowing website's behalf, is also gunning for familiar names like PayPal, which blocked donations to WikiLeaks after the State Department declared its operations illegal, and Twitter, which Anonymous claims is blocking WikiLeaks as a trending topic and has suspended Operation Payback's account. But despite the hackers' sudden omnipresence, there's so little we know about them. How many of them are there? Does this have anything to do with Julian Assange's arrest? Taken en masse, would they consider themselves more of a Blair or a Serena? The Guardian talked to the group's 22-year-old spokesperson, who goes by the delightful moniker Coldblood, about the group and its intentions.

Anonymous first arose out of the 4chan message board. For a great take on the origins of 4chan's nefarious /b/ board, check out this 2008 cover story from the Times Magazine. But Anonymous, which is perhaps best known for launching cyber-attack campaigns against Scientology and anti-file-sharing organizations, has moved beyond 4chan, except for the fact that targets worth pursuing are still discussed in its message boards. Indeed, Intel spoke to Thrillist founder Ben Lerer this afternoon about his decision to hire 4chan's founder, Moot, who is in no way connected to the attack, as an adviser for his seed-stage fund, Lerer Ventures. "From what Moot has told me," said Lerer, "The press has made it out to be a 4chan attack and it's not."

So, if they're not 4chan, per se, then who are they? Coldblood described Anonymous as an ephemeral group of about a thousand, with no command structure, who come together when the spirit moves them. Their ranks are mostly filled with teenagers, but there are also "parents, IT professionals and people who happen to have time — and resources — on their hands," says the Guardian. (FYI, our mom still can't figure out Gchat, so we're pretty sure it's not her.) Coldblood also said that its members are well aware they're breaking the law, but "feel that there's safety in numbers" and haven't ruled out attacking government sites:


"Anonymous is supporting WikiLeaks not because we agree or disagree with the data that is being sent out, but we disagree with any from of censorship on the internet. If we let WikiLeaks fall without a fight then governments will think they can just take down any sites they wish or disagree with."

Despite the spokesperson's admission that they intend to move away from DDOS attacks and instead find ways to disseminate WikiLeaks further, for example by "mirroring" the site by making a copy of its data set, Forbes says its ranks are growing. There's no guarantee that new followers will go with the group, which is itself a lawless bunch. Forbes points to Operation Payback's suspended Twitter feed as a means of cluing in new recruits, although it's near impossible to determine if newbies are signing up:


That twitter feed isn’t just directing WikiLeaks’ self-appointed hacker army. It’s also amassing more troops for each attack. The group’s latest twitter posts offer a link to this page where users can download software called Hivemind that uses their machine to contribute to the hackers’ attacks and allows them to be controlled over Internet Relay Chat, or IRC.

Remember when all the crowing about hacking being our biggest threat to national security seemed overblown? The Internet won this round. Governments, your move. Just don't forget about the "hearts and minds" this time.

WikiLeaks: Who are the hackers behind Operation Payback? [Guardian UK]
How WikiLeaks’ Online Avengers Are Growing Their Attack Ranks [Forbes]