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The online vigilantes
We're used to the conventional kinds of protest, whether it's at Egypt's Tahrir Square or Delhi's Ramlila Maidan. Now, a new tribe of protestor is working stealthily towards the same ends but by the glow of a computer screen. It calls itself Anonymous and is a collective linked only by a nom de guerre. The image of the 'suit without a head' illustrates this leaderless, unorganised organisation. The rank and file don't come bearing placards or shouting slogans. They use little pieces of code to wreak havoc on their target, which can be a business, a government or even a single individual.
You can't join Anonymous because there is nothing to join. When enough hackers take action against something or someone merely by announcing they are Anonymous, they become Anonymous.
Their penchant for secrecy, lack of internal hierarchy and demographical spread - age, culture and country - make these 'hacktivists' unpredictable, erratic, impulsive and volatile. The word hacktivist, a portmanteau of hacker and activist, refers to a person who uses the web to agitate for change in politics, business or society. They even found a place on Time magazine's list of 100 Most Influential People last year. "Anonymous isn't a person... But if you tick off the thin-skinned, ad hoc network of hackers who collaborate under the moniker, get ready for trouble, " the editors wrote.
However, there is no predicting what 'righteous cause' Anonymous might choose to support, or even how they might choose to do it. These are the folks who supported the Middle East uprising last spring by taking down websites of the government of Tunisia and then defacing them with the Anonymous logo and the ominous tagline that reads: "We are Anonymous, We are Legion. "
Only last week, a faction leaked the details of alleged paedophiles. "This is a list of paedophiles that Twitter hasn't deemed important to remove despite their posts of children participating in lewd acts... We are releasing these names in hopes that Twitter will stop these scumbags. You mess with our children, you mess with us, " a member wrote as a preface to the list that contained 100 account handles.
Simultaneously, operatives in India were giving press interviews, detailing their plans for a nationwide movement on June 9 to protest the blocking of file-hosting and file-sharing websites such as Dailymotion, Vimeo and The Pirate Bay by major internet service providers.
"There will be a physical protest as well as cyber attacks, " Anonymous said. "Anons who are out of India will perform cyber attacks and Anons in the country will take part in real-world protests wearing Guy Fawkes masks. There will be banners, slogans... It's just an awakening protest. "
Meanwhile in Canada, these faceless hacktivists have threatened an attack on Formula One during this weekend's Canadian Grand Prix. Anonymous announced that they would be supporting the students in Quebec who are protesting a hike in school fees.
"Beginning on June 7 and running through race day on June 10, Anonymous will take down all the F1 websites... We would like to remind anyone considering attending this abominable race that last time, Anonymous found all the spectators' personal data including credit card numbers unencrypted on F1 servers. Anonymous will be among many protesters targeting the Grand Prix, " a statement said.
Last month, the group had successfully managed to hack formula1. com during the Bahrain Grand Prix over "the incredible human rights abuses of the Bahrain regime".
In the last five years, the group has gone after practically everyone: from pornographers to McKay Hatch - a teen who ran a website against profanity;from Scientologists to the Vatican;Interpol to the Sony PlayStation network;the Syrian government to the CIA.
The coalition is hydra-headed, said an erstwhile hacker who didn't wish to be identified. "New offshoots are constantly sprouting across the globe with almost every cyber vigilante fighting under its common flag. " Anonymous, it seems, has made individual groups redundant.
But who decides what's right or wrong? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches these watchmen ? Some of these hackers are proficient programmers. But the numbers indicate that the ranks also include "script kiddies" - adolescents who might have just discovered the powers of disruptive programming and are in it just for the thrill.
"The participants in Anonymous are of varying maturity, " says Pranesh Prakash, programme manager at The Centre of Internet and Society - a policy research and advocacy non-profit NGO.
Prakash, as part of research, has spent considerable time on the online bulletin board services used by Anonymous as well as in its "OpIndia" chat room. "Some are kids who are writing exams, others are experienced computer security analysts. Most seem to be people who are passionate about a cause, and don't know much about exploiting security vulnerabilities - and many of them also seem to be misinformed about what exactly is going on. "
And then there's the case where the left hand does not know what the right is doing. An Anonymous faction that spoke to TOI-Crest denied that the OpKashmir attack on the Indian Army's website in May was carried out by hackers from their group. "We are not involved in attacking the website of the Indian National Army. We believe a country's de-
fence organizations should be left alone, " we were told. Yet, a few days later, on May 21, Anonymous claimed responsibility for the attack.
"The Indian Military has been committing multiple human rights abuses in Kashmir...Omar Abdullah has failed to address the problem...In support of the protestors of Kashmir, we have taken down the following sites: Jknc. in, jkpolice. gov. in and indianarmy. nic. in. "
The notion of vigilante justice is almost romantic: Take on the law for the greater good. But this isn't a Hollywood Western and these hackers no Charles Bronson. Some from the ranks do get disillusioned. Jennifer Emick, an early member of Anonymous, quit the hacker group when its activities went beyond the campaign against Scientology.
The 40-year-old started a company called Backtrace Security and used her insider knowledge to help the FBI collect information on Hector "Sabu" Monsegur, the leader of Anonymous offshoot LulzSec.
In March this year, it was revealed that Monsegur had also been working as a FBI informer after secretly pleading guilty on August 15 last year. He had provided the investigation bureau with data that has helped lawmakers to file charges against five others for computer hacking offences. Still, many netizens look sympathetically towards Anonymous and some of the social issues it chooses to highlight. "The Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attack that brings down a website temporarily ought not to be treated criminally, " Prakash says. "These DDOSes are equivalent to hartals outside a factory. Most DDOSes are symbolic in nature and don't affect the functionality of the underlying service. For instance, even when the RCom website was DDOSed, its customers could still access the internet. " In a similar vein, industry watcher and erstwhile journalist Prakash Advani says, "For any democratic country, freedom of speech is important... And even though ours is a democracy, it is not easy for people to express their opinions freely... groups like Anonymous have found ways to express themselves. " Meanwhile, officials at Computer Emergency Response Team India (CERTIn ) have geared up for the Anonymous attack on June 9. "I deplore the threats issued by the hackers and the attacks carried out by them on IT infrastructure over the past weeks. We will protect all the government websites from any hacker attacks, as we have done in the past, " director-general Dr Gulshan Rai said. But regardless of whether these hacktivists find public sympathy or support, this group of internet rebels has already captured the world's attention.
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