A demonstrator stands along the fence during a protest in front of the White House against corrupt governments and corporations, part of a Million Mask March (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
In November, a Missouri chapter of the Ku Klux Klan distributed fliers near Ferguson and on social media, suggesting that the white supremacy group was preparing to respond to the ongoing protests against police brutality in the St. Louis area with “lethal force.”
“You have awakened a sleeping giant,” the flier from the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan read, addressing the protestors. “We will use lethal force as provided under Missouri law to defend ourselves … You have been warned by the Ku Klux Klan!”
Protesters initially challenged the police-related death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown and a grand jury’s decision not to bring charges against Darren Wilson, the officer involved in the August shooting. Yet the protests that started around Ferguson have morphed into a nationwide call against police brutality in light of similar grand jury acquittals — including the Eric Garner case in Staten Island — and a rash of recent police-related shootings.
In response to this perceived threat, the hacktivist collective Anonymous declared “cyber war” on the KKK. In an operation dubbed “#OpKKK,” Anonymous launched distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on several Klan websites and took over two Klan Twitter accounts — @KuKluxKlanUSA and @YourKKKCentral. Perhaps most damagingly, Anonymous also posted personal information of alleged Klan members — including photos, addresses, telephone numbers, workplaces, and photos and names of dependent children. Not even Frank Ancona, the self-proclaimed Imperial Wizard of the Traditionalist American Knights, was spared.
“After exposing Klan members and seizing the Klan’s websites and Twitter accounts, Anonymous members faced much criticism regarding freedom,” a statement from Anonymous reads in part. “Anonymous stands for freedom, so why would we strip someone of his or her freedom of speech? The Ku Klux Klan is a terrorist group. The blood of thousands of human beings are on the hands of Klansmen. In most of Anonymous’ member’s eyes, the KKK no longer has the right to express their racist, bigoted opinions.”
Depending on one’s views, actions such as these by Anonymous may seem heavy-handed and even destructive. Recently, a Twitter account that claims association with Anonymous threatened to release the sex tape of rapper Iggy Azalea unless she apologizes to fellow rapper Azealia Banks for alleged racial comments. This, in conjunction with a threat to leak “The Interview” — which was pulled from release after the hacker group Guardians of Peace threatened to attack any theater that showed the movie — have led many to doubt the benevolence and good intentions of the hacktivist collective. These doubts exist persist despite “the hive” — the central core of Anonymous activists — denouncing these actions.
Still, there is little doubt that Anonymous has redefined what it means to be an activist in the Internet era. Hacktivist organizations, such as Anonymous, have given individuals the ability to have a meaningful impact on issues of malfeasance that were previously out of reach or outside public scrutiny. Yet with this has also come a realization of the dangers this new level of public interaction brings and the chaos that can arise in the name of good intentions.
The recent hacks against Sony Pictures Entertainment, for example, indicate a potential problem with the notion of “hacktivism” — ethical computer hacking in the name of benevolent protest. On Nov. 24, individuals identifying themselves as Guardians of Peace — a reference to a speech President Nixon gave regarding South Korea — illegally downloaded over 100 terabytes of data from the computer servers of Sony, including digital copies of unreleased movies, interoffice emails, personnel files which include the personally-identifiable information of the company’s employees and contractors, usernames and passwords and other protected materials, including health records.
Referred to in the media as a hacktivist group, the Guardians of Peace members behind the hacks justified their actions as a form of protest of the release of “The Interview,” a film in which James Franco and Seth Rogen play an American television interviewer/producer team charged by the CIA with assassinating North Korean leader Kim Jong-un after being granted an exclusive invitation to interview him. In July, months prior to the attack, North Korea had formally complained to the United Nations, arguing that “to allow the production and distribution of such a film on the assassination of an incumbent head of a sovereign state should be regarded as the most undisguised sponsoring of terrorism as well as an act of war.”
While North Korea has denied any responsibility for the hacking, and while Guardians of Peace has openly mocked the FBI’s assessment that the group is associated with the North Korean government, the group made an explicit threat of violence against any theaters that opt to show the film.
This threat prompted Sony to initially pull the film’s planned Christmas release, then plan a limited release for theaters willing to show the film. It also came roughly at the same time that saber-rattling from Pyongyang has been on the rise, with North Korea both threatening to retaliate against the U.S. for permitting “The Interview” to be produced and refusing to participate in any U.N. session in which North Korea’s own human rights record may be discussed (the U.N. Security Council is currently considering referring North Korea to the International Criminal Court).
A statement from North Korea’s state-run news agency KCNA suggested that North Korea has already counteracted against the release of the film, without going into details of what this may entail.
While these events are hard to define in positive terms from an American perspective, they are part of the evolving definition of protest. From Guardians of Peace’s point-of-view, the group is making a legitimate statement against how the U.S. treats North Korea.
“Let’s take, for example, a union protest,” offered Aaron Shull, Internet security research fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, to MintPress News. “It would be protected free speech to picket in front of a factory or place of business and protest the business practices of the organization. However, if one was to take the same slogans and hack the company’s website and place the slogans on the company’s webpage, that would be a computer crime, despite the fact that the effect would be the same.”
Shull argues that Anonymous has helped to make the notion of protest an online concept. In doing this, however, what is acceptable as free speech and what is not have yet to be defined. This ambiguity has allowed for disagreement on what is acceptable, either from a legal or moral standpoint. For example, this ambiguity has given federal authorities prosecutorial discretion that has led to such online dissent to be universally seen as a punishable offense.
“There’s a trade-off in place here. There’s a privacy interest involved with accessing private computer systems, but there is also an interest in ensuring the public good. This lack of boundaries draw out the difficulties in what we are dealing with with hacktivism and forces a broader societal discussion on what we believe should be acceptable online,” Shull explained.
Boundaries and definitions
This lack of boundaries was seen in Anonymous’ work in relation to the Steubenville High School rape case. On Aug. 12, 2012, a 16-year-old girl from Weirton, West Virginia, was sexually assaulted by football players from a Steubenville, Ohio, high school after leaving a party.
As reported in Rolling Stone, despite the victim having no memory of the incident, photos and videos of the encounter were traded on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. However, in Steubenville, the investigation into the rape was initially stalled, as many of the individuals involved — including the football players themselves, the city’s school superintendent, the coaches and an elementary school principal — allegedly contributed to an active cover-up by making false statements, hiding evidence, and failing to report the abuse.
The case may not have been solved without the work of Anonymous member Deric Lostutter, who — through his initiated Justice Ops — decided to take on what he saw as an unchallenged case of bullying. Prior to this, Justice Ops had addressed allegations of mishandled funds by the school board of Clark County, Kentucky and forced a revenge porn site offline.
Justice Ops also took on the Westboro Baptist Church — which takes an extreme view on Christianity, protesting against homosexuality, as well as gays, Catholics and Jews, among others — by doxing all adult members and taking down the church’s website, “God Hates Fags.” (Doxing refers to searching for and publishing the personal information of a particular individual or group online, often with malicious intent.)
Lostutter’s operation also organized a rally to protect vigils and the funerals of victims of the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting from protesting by the Westboro Church, which the Southern Poverty Law Center recognizes as a hate group.
With an empty threat that everyone involved in the Steubenville cover-up had been doxed, Lostutter’s Justice Ops managed to make Steubenville a national story, leading other Anonymous members to join in — including one who hacked the Steubenville High School booster club’s website RollRedRoll.com. Lostutter organized two rallies in Steubenville on behalf of the victims under the banner “Occupy Steubenville.” Ultimately, it was the uploading of critical files, including a video detailing the rape, that led to the convictions of Trent Mays and Ma’Lik Richmond.
For his efforts to expose what he saw as a grave injustice and cover-up, Lostutter is currently awaiting indictment and could face up to 25 years in prison for offenses against the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, including the hacking of the computer of a Steubenville booster, who Justice Ops incorrectly accused of harboring pornographic images of underage girls. (Anonymous would eventually apologize for this.)
If convicted, Lostutter could serve a longer sentence than Mays — who is currently serving a two-year sentence on charges of rape and dissemination of pornographic pictures of a minor — and Richmond, who was found delinquent of rape and served nine months of a one-year sentence in a juvenile detention center.
A modern-day philosophy
At its core, Anonymous is nothing more than a group of individuals. The only requirement for joining the group is for a person to say that he/she is a member of Anonymous. As such, how one approaches or embraces the Anonymous philosophy differs from person to person.
However, the approach the government has taken toward Anonymous has been one of extremity. “I think anything that has to do with Anonymous scare the hell out of the DOJ,” said Tor Ekeland, noted hacktivist advocate and counsel for Lostutter, to Rolling Stone. “Hackers are the new communists.”
Despite this, most would argue that hacktivists and Anonymous, in particular, have a place in the modern-day conversation.
“Not only has Anonymous redefined what it means to be an advocate, Anonymous has reinvigorated advocacy in this country and has sent it flying off to the digital revolution,” said Jay Leiderman, a criminal defense attorney who has been called the “Hacktivist’s Advocate” for his defense of Anonymous, to MintPress.
“You shouldn’t think for a minute that politicians and other organizations are not taking what has been learned from Anonymous and applying it to their outreach strategies. Anonymous has been extremely successful in mobilization and has shown how strong a crowdsourced effort could truly be.”
While Anonymous is currently in what Leiderman describes as a restructuring phase, and the future of the movement is unclear, the role the group has played in the public discourse since its emergence in 2003 has been seen by many to suggest that the powers-that-be are not necessarily all that powerful. True power, Anonymous suggests, belongs to the people — and this power can only be taken from the people if the people choose not to use it. Thus, Anonymous proves an age-old, fundamental principle: It only takes one person to make a difference. In this case, however, it’s more that it takes just one person with Internet access and an ability to organize effectively to make a difference.
“The Internet is the greatest tool we have for free speech and everywhere on the planet we all have a voice now – 7 billion of us,” said Old Holborn, a spokesperson for Anonymous, to Russia Today. “Yes of course, somebody is going to get upset at something somebody else says. But we have to realize we all have a voice. We’re all equal. If you don’t like it, don’t listen to it. That is freedom of choice and freedom of expression.
“Anonymous is whatever you want it to be.”