It is clear that Anonymous, even while it evades ideological and institutional definitions, has become a force in global politics. Understanding the nature and will of this new force is essential to any engagement with the still uncharted political landscape of this century. There are several fundamental questions: What is Anonymous? Is it possible to comprehend, in traditional terms, an organisation seemingly bereft of agenda or unifying principles? Has the internet ‘revolution’ reshaped global politics and social relations so that we must configure a new language and approach to governance and protest? This is the salience of Anonymous; it demands these questions, both as case study and political agent.
What distinguishes Anonymous in particular, is that this extraordinarily heterodox group seems to have experienced a shift in recent years. In her authoritative book on the subject, Gabriella Coleman notes how, at first, ‘mayhem was all Anonymous seemed interested in’. This aim, it might appear, has shifted towards authentic political action: opposing internet censorship; illuminating the Indignados’ protests with a digital Guy Fawkes spectre; rallying Occupy Wall Street; assisting the Tunisian uprising; declaring war on ISIS.
Do these more coherent missives represent a departure from the nineties-style hackery in which Anonymous was initiated? Many celebrants of the ‘entity’ are still content in the company of Illuminati hunters and pseudo-documentary filmmakers like Peter Joseph. However, it remains clear that the campaigns or ‘Ops’ are becoming overtly political, despite there being no recognisable underpinning ideology.
One of the group’s foremost slogans, taken from Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, (where else?), is ‘Ideas are bulletproof’. What then, is the ‘idea’? Here, we find a politics of action, (a ‘do-ocracy’), where the means upstage the ends in terms of significance. In other words, online subversion, supported by a network without clear hierarchy, is the act itself. Anonymous rarely sets absolute goals in its Ops, but emphasises the validity of its targets.
Recently, Anonymous operations have become less obscure, and even populist in nature. Their profile has lured the group from the ambivalent avant-garde of the deep web, with recent Ops including a defence of Jeremy Clarkson, via a threat levelled against the BBC.
This durability alone marks a clear shift from the secret groups of the twentieth century’s radical left and right. The group, by its nature, avoids accountability or ideological commitment. It also therefore escapes the possibility of destruction. Anonymous then, is the extreme realisation of Bob Dylan’s famous claim: ‘You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows’. With the power of online, Anonymous has ameliorated the faulty strategies of The Weather Underground (for example), a radical-left American organisation whose name was inspired by the Dylan lyric. Both groups have declared war against the US government, and militantly pursued their goal. Neither group has required ideologues or conventional politics in order to wage their battles. But where Anonymous succeeds and the Weathermen failed, the two organisations also differ: Anonymous hardly acknowledges questions of Left and Right. Until recently, its campaigns were decided arbitrarily, without acknowledging mainstream news cycles. It subverts anonymously, individually, and without a trace.
We were able to get in touch with ‘Commander X’, a prominent individual within the Anonymous network. Commander X escaped US custody in 2011 and fled to Canada. He has also written a book, Behind The Mask.
Thank you for your patience.
Thank you for yours as well, it took me awhile to get to this.
How do you operate within Anonymous and how big is the network with which you’re connected?
That’s a huge question. The how will be answered best in my soon-to-be-released book Behind The Mask: A Story Of Anonymous. What I do is pretty complex and would take too much room to explain in this venue. I also encourage everyone to read Gabriella Coleman’s new book Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces Of Anonymous for a better idea of how we operate in general.
I am not certain precisely which ‘network’ you are referring to. But if it’s Anonymous — it’s global, and enormous. I directly work with many hundreds, sometimes thousands. And there are millions participating in the Global Collective of Anonymous at this time.
What do you see as the role of hacktivism — specifically, what do you hope and believe Anonymous is capable of achieving?
As a collective I think Anonymous goals are incredibly diverse and ever-changing — thus pretty impossible to pin down in this forum. Again, people have written books trying to answer these questions. For myself, I would be satisfied if Anonymous can just keep the Internet turned on globally and help people resist the surveillance and police state with technology.
What can you tell us about Matt DeHart’s recent deportation from Canada to the US?
I know basically what you know, from both independent and mainstream media. I am not in any contact whatsoever with either his support/legal team nor his family. He was denied asylum and has been deported from Canada.
What does this, (and those other cases like that of Aaron Schwartz) demonstrate about the relationship of Anonymous with the US State, and the US State’s interests?
We are at war with the government of the USA. It’s really that simple. But it is a situation that they brought on themselves with the barbaric treatment of good people like Chelsea Manning, Jeremy Hammond, Barrett Brown, ‘Lorax’ — and so many others.
And it’s not just Anonymous. Essentially the entire worldwide BlackHat hacker community has turned viciously on the USA. And in bringing this on themselves, the government of the USA has effectively alienated the one community who might help them against their true cyber adversaries like China and Russia.
Is it sometimes difficult to vouch for an organisation, or even claim group status for a network which is so heterodox in character, and is without a consistent political programme, ideology or agenda — can Anonymous affect real change without these things, and does it even aim to?
Anonymous for the most part does not affect political change directly so much as we aim to empower people to counter power structures and affect their own social change. We do this primarily by supplying them with information, tools and technology.
In one manifesto, Anonymous said that it stands for ‘Truth, freedom and the removal of censorship’ — are there ever limitations to these principals, (the main cliché given being National Security, of course).
But Anonymous itself is very secretive and self-censored— is this a contradiction?
I’ll answer with a quote straight from my book, the Forward specifically, in which I address this supposed contradiction directly:
“There can be no argument that Anonymous is having an incredible impact on the events unfolding in our world today. As such, we have a responsibility to account for our actions and the great power that fate and political forces have bestowed upon Anonymous. For it would be hypocritical of us to demand, as we have — transparency from the governments and corporations that rule our world and not offer up transparency ourselves. Now some would say this is an impossible contradiction, anonymity and transparency. But this is not actually a contradiction. One enables the other. By tending to our personal anonymity and making that bulletproof, we enable ourselves to safely open up our actions to the scrutiny of the world and history. It allows us to act as one and be accountable as one, while keeping us all safe from the oppressors”. — Forward from Behind The Mask
What do you believe has been the greatest achievement of hacktivism to date?
I don’t see any one of the many recent victories as particularly iconic.
For me the crowning achievement is greater empowerment of the world’s people by using technology to lessen their fear of the surveillance and police state, so that these power structures can be properly challenged.
Would you like Anonymous to change somehow, or do you think its role should remain as a stationary watchdog?
The question is irrelevant because it is based upon the faulty assumption that any one individual can have even the slightest influence on the future of this gigantic collective.
But if I were not content with what Anonymous currently is, I would not be a part of it. It’s that simple really.
How do you choose targets and campaigns? (In other words, why ISIS etc., and not other organisations — how is this decided?)
Every Operation begins with a single individual Anon feeling righteous indignation over an issue. From there it is a ‘do-ocracy’. If you want something done, an Op launched, you just roll up your sleeves and make it so. Or you find someone who knows how and recruit them.
What would your advice be to other political exiles?
Do NOT trust Western governments to be fair and unbiased with reference to the USA and UK war against hackers. That was the unfortunate mistake the DeHart family made, they trusted the Canadian government to do the right thing. They never will.
Find a jurisdiction you can hide in and stay in the underground. If you want legally recognized asylum, at least in North America — head south NOT north. Ecuador, Venezuela — possibly others. Only South American countries legally recognize the concept of ‘consular asylum’ so keep that in mind when considering jumping into an embassy for protection.
What do you believe are the limitations and benefits of vigilantism…
When so-called ‘governmental systems’ fail completely, and endanger their own people, there are no limits to a moral response. Even raising arms in revolt if necessary. I think we hackers work so hard because we would like to provide less … messy, alternatives.
… and do you think that the internet is ultimately a progressive, empowering tool for citizen movements, or is it simply an opportunity for the extension of surveillance, marketing etc? I.e., is the internet a force for emancipation or control?
As Aaron Swartz put it so well, it’s both. The Internet is the battlefield upon which the Great Hacker War is being fought. The prize is nothing less than the future of humanity.