Inside Anonymous: an interview with Parmy Olson

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Journalist Parmy Olson spent a year researching Anonymous, the loosely defined hacker collective that's antagonized everyone from the Church of Scientology to PayPal to the CIA. Her new book, We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous and the Global Cyber Insurgency, follows the group from its inception on 4chan's anarchic /b/ forum, through its feud with Scientology and its informal alliance with WikiLeaks, to the recent arrests of several high-level members. Along the way, she shows Anonymous as a complex organization with multiple motivations, from hacktivism to the simple pursuit of sweet, sweet "lulz." We talked to her about the rise of Anonymous, what it says about an emerging internet culture, and, after a series of arrests, where the group might go from here. Follow her on Twitter at @parmy.

Anonymous is known for being a nebulous, secretive group, where members adopt aliases and, in the case of at least one hacker, Kayla, weave elaborate, fictitious backstories. How did you go about investigating the group, and separating fact from legend?

It wasn't easy, and there was no hard and fast method. As I state in a note at the front of the book, I tried to focus on sources who I deemed more reliable to gather information, then corroborate from there by checking those claims with other sources. For example, when I heard from one good source that botnets — not a "hive" of thousands of volunteers — were the real reason why Anonymous could successfully DDoS PayPal and MasterCard, I checked this out with another key player in Anonymous, who confirmed it, as well as with Panda Securities, an IT security firm who'd been researching the Operation Payback attacks. Though many people I spoke to wanted to remain literally anonymous, I've also listed all my source notes at the back of the book.

"The true power of Anonymous is the ability to social engineer both its supporters and the world around it."

Like everyone I had my suspicions of Kayla from the get go, but was enthralled by the mythology of a 16 year old super-hacker-Girl-With-a-Dragon-Tattoo and who knows what else. It became clear as time went on that Kayla probably wasn't who she claimed, so in online interviews, I played along with the story. I could still get some details on her hacks, and methods for staying hidden and a sense of who the real Kayla might be by listening to her backstories. The latter was weirdly fascinating. Kayla for me exemplified the true power of Anonymous, which is the ability to social engineer both its supporters and the world around it. People wanted to believe in the mythology of Kayla as much as they did the power and significance of Anonymous itself.

What's the most surprising thing you discovered?

Probably when I saw the YouTube video (since deleted) of an IRC chat between a representative of WikiLeaks and the LulzSec hackers, in which the camera then panned up to show Julian Assange sitting at a laptop opposite. This was the moment when LulzSec had what they believed was their first discussion with WikiLeaks in June 2011. Topiary, the group's mouthpiece, assumed it was a troll at first, but a tweet from the official WikiLeaks Twitter feed, and then a second video of Assange convinced him and the rest of the group otherwise. According to another former core member of LulzSec, certain members of the group went on to try and gain access to Icelandic government servers, and failed when the server didn't respond correctly, and the hack was called off lest they be detected. They also located government mail servers, but didn't attack then. As with everything, the hackers got distracted by other things; it was an incredibly busy time for LulzSec. The book notes that we can't say with 100% certainty that these discussions were not part of an elaborate troll by a member of Assange's inner circle — an early chapter in the book describes the organizer of the LulzSec / WikiLeaks meeting as being a liar. But that video was jaw-dropping for the LulzSec hackers at the time, and for me too.

In the book you focus on three members of Lulzsec — Topiary, Sabu, and Kayla — all since arrested. What do the stories and personalities of these three show us about the larger phenomenon of Anonymous?

I've already mentioned how Kayla, to me, exemplifies Anonymous' power in social engineering the world around it and sometimes its own members. Kayla was laid back, a free spirit who didn't care to align "herself" with anything too closely. And incredibly smart. What intrigued me about the person behind Kayla was their ability to manipulate their character, mannerisms, and backstories online, creating a whole new identity. In one way this is just a byproduct of the Internet, a place where we can be anyone we want to be. But Anonymous could amplify this with cause and justification, and that's where Sabu and Topiary come in. Each was able to find not only camaraderie through Anonymous, but a purpose too: Sabu as a self-styled revolutionary hacktivist who wanted to change the world around him, and Topiary as a whip-smart entertainer who wanted to make people laugh.

Topiary left behind a final tweet: "You cannot arrest an idea." You write that Anonymous is less a physically defined group than a story, an evolving, collective narrative that can contain everything from relatively harmless online pranks to costly denial-of-service attacks to real-world protests in the Occupy vein. The powerful appeal (and the appeal of power) seems to remain for current and potential Anonymous members. What stories to you imagine coming out of the group in the future?

We'll probably see a continuing discord between the one side of Anonymous that wants the phenomenon to remain in the roots of "lulz," or pranks and fun at the expense of others — and the rise of the more serious actor within Anonymous, who wants it to continue moving in a more socio-political direction of Robin-Hood-style Internet vigilantism. I honestly don't know which side will win out, but I imagine that cyber disruption overall will continue. As our world becomes more connected — with everything from our washing machine, to our microwave, to the TV being joined up by Wi-Fi — the proliferation of online offences will outweigh real-world ones. Anonymous, as both a brand and a process, will play a part in that either to kickstart something completely new and different, or as something more evolved.

You've asked if Anonymous is the Internet's most powerful mirage, suggesting that much of its bluster has been self-serving and come to naught. If it is indeed a mirage, does that matter?

"There is an extraordinary ability to spontaneously organize events and hype out of thin air."

Anonymous does matter, but just not in the way that we think. Over the years its supporters have reveled in this notion of being an "Internet Hate Machine," a mysterious clique of super hackers, and political protestors — all of which are only part of the true story. What fascinated me most about Anonymous, and what fascinates me to this day, is the sub-culture that it ultimately comes from. Putting the vast amounts of e-drama to one side, there is a profound social acceptance between people in the online worlds of Anonymous and 4chan, that you won't find in the real world of office politics and traffic lights. There is an extraordinary ability to spontaneously organize events and hype out of thin air. As Sabu once said, it also gives a voice to people who otherwise wouldn't have one. Anonymous is at the forefront of how people are learning to collaborate and interact in an increasingly open, digital age, where the online identity we create is as important as what's written on our birth certificate, where there is a more fluid meeting of minds than humans have ever experienced before. What Anonymous manages to explore long term in that vein is as important, in my view, as what its many observers are writing today on Twitter or in press releases.

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