Anonymous is anonymous. If you declare you are affiliated with the hacktivist group, Anonymous, then, you are. There is no main command and control center. There are just people with an axe to grind who band together to organize attacks on sites whose principles they don’t agree with. The broadly defined banner is an anarchist one. They seem to resent authority, oppressive governments, big business, the military, right wing groups, and the police. They seem to support freedom of speech in so far as that speech does not conflict with their own views. The somewhat random and incoherent nature of their attacks means that they are bound to appeal to everyone at some point. People who may disagree with their attacks on police websites may agree with their attacks on ISIS and child pornography sites.
The group is known for its use of DDoS (Distributive Denial of Service) attacks. Such attacks overwhelm a site’s server with requests to the point where the site becomes inoperable. Anonymous has used this tactic since its inception when it attacked the Church of Scientology through prank phone calls and network stress-testing software such as JMeter, Gigaloader, and Low Orbit Ion Cannon. In concept, these are legal tools for pentesters to test the viability of a network. In the wrong hands, they can take down a network that is unprepared for such an attack.
It has to be kept in mind that, during these early days, Anonymous was simply a group of pranksters who all happened to dislike Scientology and enjoyed trolling them. Scientology leaders made the mistake of responding to these attacks which only encouraged the pranksters to continue. As one of their pranks, Anonymous put up a YouTube video featuring the now famous computerized voice that marks many of their announcements. In the video, the voice warns Scientology leaders that, “For the good of your followers, for the good of mankind—for the laughs—we shall expel you from the Internet.”
While some took all of this as a joke, others took it seriously and actually protested outside of Scientology centers around the globe. Many wore masks featured in what was then a recently released movie called, V for Vendetta, about a man who fights a totalitarian government. In the movie, the main character wears a Guy Fawkes mask. The wearing of this mask has since become associated with the group.
After a while, many of the pranksters lost interest in Scientology and went on to better things. However, there remained a certain number of activists who wanted to continue their fights for justice, or what they determined was justice.
In their most recent attacks, a collection of hacktivists using the Anonymous banner started Operation Jane to protest the new abortion legislation in Texas.
The group did not claim they were starting a DDoS attack, because that could put them in legal jeopardy. What they did was to ask everyone to visit sites that were connected to this legislation and, in effect, overwhelm them with questions, or filing false reports, or whatever else that would overheat the servers. In so doing, of course, the organizers hoped that people would, incidentally, bring down those websites. This tactic did work in one instance as TikTok members took down an abortion whistleblower site by overwhelming them with fake whistleblower reports.
This attack was followed by a far more destructive one that, according to the hackers, retrieved 180GB of information from Epik, a web hosting service. Why Epik? Because it is known for hosting right wing or extreme right wing content, which does not match with Anonymous’ view of the world.
The data was released on the Distributed Denial of Secrets website where it can be downloaded as a torrent. But is anyone really going to download 180GB of data, much of which is uninteresting? In any event, here is what the release is said to contain.
Epik servers host the right wing sites Gab and Parler, among others, but information on their users has already been released and is also available on the DDoSecrets site. I’ve checked this information and have found much of it useless as it is in a format that few investigators will want to deal with. Other information, such as that on Parler, simply is not accessible. True, the samples they give can be viewed but attempting to view other files leads you nowhere.
It may be that some material from these hacks is compromising, but it’s a double-edged sword. The one video released shows the Capitol Police moving the barriers so that the January 6th demonstrators could enter the Capitol Building grounds and, eventually, the Capitol Building itself. But does this work in favor or against the demonstrators?
When contacted by Gizmodo, a spokesperson for Epik claimed that, “We are not aware of any breach. We take the security of our clients’ data extremely seriously, and we are investigating the allegation.” That said, The Record claims it received the hacked data from Anonymous and reported that “most of the archived data contained what the hackers claimed.” Eventually, Epik admitted that, in fact, they had been hacked and data from its servers was taken.
The question that needs to be answered is: What damage has been done by this hack? Certainly, Epik will lose some of its credibility, but will they lose their customers? The main reason right wing sites such as Parler and Gab went there in the first place was because no one else would host them. Do they have a choice but to stay with them now? It’s possible that individuals who post on these sites may want to hide their identities. Oddly, in the land of free speech, free speech seems to come at a price. The whole idea behind free speech is the freedom to offend, otherwise, only approved opinions will be allowed. Those on the left who believe that banning such speech is justified may not feel the same when the pendulum swings the other way and left wing sites are banned. You just can’t have it both ways.
Another problem in banning sites is that it gives them an aura that they may not deserve. Keep in mind something called “The Streisand Effect”. When Barbara Streisand tried to suppress photos showing her house, she inadvertently drew more interest in her house and more and more photos appeared. In other words, banning something has a tendency to build more interest in it. When Twitter blocked the New York Post’s story of Hunter Biden’s laptop from their platform and locked the accounts of those who shared a link to the article, attention in the article doubled from 5000 in 15 minutes to 10,000 in 15 minutes. Is this really what Anonymous wants to do with right wing websites? If you think this is idle speculation, think again. Shortly after the January 6th demonstrations, the Morning Consult published this graph showing that the banning of conservative apps had a result that was opposite from what might have been expected.
Then researchers discovered another problem. It appeared that, among the 15 million emails Anonymous released, there were a significant number of emails by people who never had any association with right wing websites or Epik. Apparently, Epik had scraped email addresses from sites on the internet like Whois and stored them on their servers. There is nothing illegal about this as email marketing companies do this sort of thing all the time. But as Ars Technica reports, the “data breach monitoring service HaveIBeenPwned has now begun sending out alerts to millions of email addresses exposed in the Epik hack.” Some people on the left were probably surprised and not a little distressed to find that they had inadvertently been associated with right wing websites.
The problem with hacktivist groups like Anonymous, is that they often fail to see the collateral damage that their self-proclaimed noble actions may cause. In this case, they may have hurt people they share ideological foundations with more than those they disagree with. This, in turn, may have hurt their own reputation more than it did the reputations of Epik and its users. In short, Anonymous should keep in mind a quote by T.S. Elliot which claims that, “Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions.”