Four years ago, Tom Cruise’s prominent role in the Church of Scientology brought the wrath of the hacking collective Anonymous squarely upon him. An in-house Scientology video—in which Cruise cackled and claimed superhuman powers in times of crisis—suddenly flooded YouTube, then quickly disappeared after a copyright violation claim from the Church of Scientology. Anonymous responded with the launch of Operation Chanology, its first digital action to generate a great deal of press. Not long after, protesters donning V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes masks began popping up outside Scientology buildings in Los Angeles to express their displeasure with Cruise and the religious institution. The mysterious beast of Anonymous poked its masked face into the public sphere.
Consider the rhizome, an underground stem that gives rise to shoots from out of its various nodes. The rhizome, as it turns out, goes some way in describing the organizational, self-replicating structure of Anonymous, a loose band of “hacktivists” whose beginnings are as internodal as technology itself. Anonymous is not merely a hive mind but a gargantuan rhizome. Under this lens, Anonymous becomes a microcosm of its much larger host: the Internet.
Unlike the calcified institutions of government and big business, with Anonymous all are theoretically welcome to join. The collective’s hackers discuss issues such as the US-imposed financial blockade of WikiLeaks, the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, or Go Daddy’s support of the internet blacklist bill SOPA. Out of this ferment they propose actions—some humorous (artwork, tweets, memes) and others risky or illegal (email hacking, DDoS attacks, web defacement). From there, through a form of direct democracy, operations begin.
Anonymous didn’t pioneer its subversive techniques. Its tools were already available within the hacking underground. What they managed to do was bring hacking’s underground existence out of its burrow and firmly into the public consciousness.
To obscure their footprints on the digital warpath, Anonymous hackers hide their IP addresses with unnamed proxies or private servers. They also utilize servers in countries that typically don’t cooperate with investigations, like China or Brazil. Such methods of fighting from the digital shadows are not foolproof; several Anons were unmasked in 2011.
IRC rooms, Tor relays, and other secure forms of communication function as the incubators. Here, projects such as Operation Chanology or Operation Avenge Assange—which targeted Visa, Mastercard, and others who banned donations to Wikileaks—are born. Risks still exist. Anyone purporting to be an Anonymous member could be a law enforcer or stool pigeon encouraging action. Look no further than LulzSec, an Anonymous offshoot which imploded when one of its ringleaders, Sabu, was found to be an FBI informant.
Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist who specializes in digital protest, calls the IRCs the central nervous system of Anonymous. Originally they were the staging ground of Internet pranks. By 2010, they had morphed into a bunker of sorts. And it was from this bunker that Anonymous unleashed its most potent and controversial digital protest tactic, the DDoS, or Distributed Denial of Service.
DDoS attacks allowed Anonymous to flood businesses that financially blockaded WikiLeaks with a torrent of internet traffic. Naturally, corporations and governments characterize the attacks not as methods of digital protest but as a significant financial burden. It shares some lineage with the age-old strike, but properly used, the DDoS can more effectively swing public opinion against certain institutions.
In response, businesses and governments updated their servers, and Anonymous recently acknowledged that DDoS attacks are no longer as effective as they were in 2011. So, as they noted in a recent video directed against the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), they are re-emphasizing the idea of physical protest. When Anons began showing up in-person at Occupy rallies, observers shouldn’t have been so surprised. Protesters with Guy Fawkes masks famously rallied outside Scientology buildings; it’s in the collective’s DNA. The collective is an adaptive hybrid, fusing the digital and physical realms.
The group’s range of interests is matched only by their unique ability to metamorphose. Lacking any headquarters or dominant ideology, their non-traditional methods make them notoriously difficult to fight. One minute, they might find common cause with Occupy Wall Street, and the next, one might find them launching an attack on Sony, as they did when Sony sued hacker George Hotz (GeoHot) for jailbreaking the Sony PS3. Like the rhizome, Anonymous can be separated into a number of pieces and give rise to a number of new nodes. And from here, it can spread its digital style of resistance from a number of different angles simultaneously.
Even a cursory glance at Anonymous’s online rhetoric suggests they consider themselves freedom fighters combatting unethical corporations and governments worldwide. The collective isn’t without its critics, though. Older and more talented hackers often call them “script kiddies”, a derisive term for those who use scripts or programs developed by others instead of creating themselves. Others have taken the collective to task for acting unilaterally as judge, jury, and executioner—a reality with which even the group’s most enthusiastic supporters must reckon at some point.
The takedown of LulzSec, which included some of Anonymous’s most talented and brazen hackers, might have temporarily slowed the collective. But the rhizomatic nature encourages gestation and rebirth. And that rebirth might be outside of the Anonymous umbrella completely, in another series of endlessly foliating, morphing, non-hierarchical organisms. Rhizomes, after all, are not immortal. But like all living creatures they evolve.