We Are Anonymous

By Parmy Olson

The full title of which is We Are Anonymous, Inside the Hacker World of Lulzsec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency.  That's a lot to pack in, but it is a long book, so here goes. Anonymous is a difficult subject at the best of times, because things move so quickly and truth, uncertainty and falsehood flow so indiscriminately together in the mix.

Hacker groups sometimes make history.  Once upon a time, the Chaos Computer Club drew public attention to the security flaws of the German Bildschirmtext network by causing it to debit DM 134,000 in a Hamburg bank in favour of the club. The money was returned the next day in front of the press. Then there was the Cult of the Dead Cow, the Legion of Doom, globalHell and milw0rm, all of whom have provided security exploits and major lulz (that’s laughs, kids).  Then there have been the cause celebres, cases like Kevin Mitnick.

Mitnick served five years in prison — four and a half years pre-trial and eight months in solitary confinement — because, it is said, law enforcement officials convinced a judge that he had the ability to start a nuclear war by whistling into a pay phone.  By now you may be getting an idea of the levels of paranoia now attendant to the profession of computer hacking.

The story of Anonymous is not easy to tell and it’s credit to Parmy Olsen that she’s able to present this confused chapter of the hacker saga in an organised and palatable form.  Within the idea of Anonymous, nothing is contiguous or fixed, situations change hourly, and careers can rise to stratospheric heights in weeks, and fall in seconds.  On top of that add the fact that there isn’t such a thing as a group called Anonymous, or even a fixed idea, just what is sometimes referred to as a hive-mind.  Instead there are blurred identities, regular people like you and me who choose to interact and surf anonymously, pranksters, criminals, reactive attacks on institutions combined with idiotic jokes and large amounts of cyber bullying — generally of girls.

We Are Anonymous by Parmy Olson covers from 2008 to 2012, with the earlier parts of the story being easier to map — the rise of 4chan and the growth of Anonymous.   Although it may not have set out to be, We Are Anonymous is above all the story of Jake Davis, aka Topiary, and although there’s plenty about Sabu, Kayla and the others, this is Jake’s volume.

When he was a Lulzsec hacktivist, Topiary was incredibly popular for his writing skills, and his press releases are legendary.  It’s clear much of the charm has worked on Parmy Olsen, who includes details such as Jake’s favourite curry, among other things.  I don’t think anyone is immune to these charms, although the glowing terms in which Jake Davis are described in We Are Anonymous are a great hook, and every book, fact or fiction, should have an attractive central character.

There are great stories in We Are Anonymous and you will be fascinated to read about Sabu, the politically oriented, older leader, and Kayla, the girlish and extraordinarily talented database hacker; also Laurelai, a 4chan member who joined the anti-Scientology protests and became increasingly important within Anonymous; and Jennifer Emick, an anti-Scientology activist who turned against the group.

Then there are the 4chan pranksters, like the character identified as ‘William’.  It’s worth pointing out the aspect of bullying in the Anonymous story.  Bullying recurs constantly throughout We Are Anonymous.  There are several Anonymous mission statements posted here and there on the Internet, and a common theme is the threat that whereas ‘you’ (the enemy) may control the streets and the school corridors (telling reference, that) it is Anonymous that controls the Internet — ‘Our Internet’ as it is some Anons have called it.  Throughout We Are Anonymous, there are heroic stories related to Wikileaks and other noble institutions, but also reading Parmy Olson’s book, you’ll come across a constant and depressing cycle of cyber-bullying. 

To get a book out before any of the trials of Lulzsec, is ballsy too.  There is a strange prejudicing going on which is lulzy in itself, as if Little Brown are publishing everything the jury is going to have to know.  Parmy Olson promises that the trials will go on for a long time, and we can only hope for the sake of Louise Boat that the legal process itself is lulzy.  Unlike most researchers, Parmy Olson (whose name many a reviewer or commentator can’t seem to spell) includes a phenomenally detailed section on Notes and Sources, which I think is as well, as the waters are murky, to say the least.

Still, Olson’s We Are Anonymous is unique, as people don’t generally bring out authoritative texts on criminal cases, this far before the trials have even begun.  Frankly, any potential juror who reads Parmy Olson’s book could save themselves two months of listening to evidence, it is that complete.  As with any sort of evidence it’s up to you to figure out what you think is true, and if you read it you’ll maybe go to have a look at 4chan and the Encyclopedia Dramatica for yourself, and get a sense of what a fucked up, vindictive and childish world it is.

We Are Anonymous goes further back than they jury may even need, and itemises many of Jake’s prank calls — Britain should be proud of them.   His pranking talent is supreme, and we love that in this country.  He is close to a virtual Chris Morris, at times and there is some mighty mining of the English language in his pronouncements, tweets, chat logs and press statements.  Jake's humble origins as a prank caller reveal his particular talents well, but he lived a double life, and Parmy Olson is sensitive about his school career, even though there are enough hints to suggest that it wasn’t much fun for him as an outsider in the cold Shetland Islands.

Which does bring us back to bullying.  It’s hardly the world of cyber-activism, but as this is the story of a bunch of kids, they do treat of the Internet as their playground, and you'll see that some of the unethical activities carried out by a(A)nonymous Internet users are low key and childish stunts.

There are a lot of people that find these stunts funny, but for lulz nothing can beat the humiliation of Aaron Barr, the story of which takes up the first part of the book.  Barr was something of a failure to begin with and was hoping to revive his career by tracking down Anonymous, using pretty much the same tactics as hackers use: fake social media accounts, real time obs, social engineering and guesswork.

The problem with Barr was that when he had collated his data which he was due to pass to the FBI, some hackers got hold of it and discovered it to be wildly inaccurate.  This is a sobering thought, that a government paid security consultant could implicate so many innocent people as hackers, crackers and hacktivists.  The fine lines are almost impossible to draw, considering how defenceless both the bullied girl and Aaron Barr both were.  We can decide if it’s bullying, or ritual humiliation.  In recent history there have been many celebrated hacker groups that have risen quickly, burned brightly, and then collided with the law with explosive and media-friendly results.  These are always staggering stories and this book is one such.  Yes, you’ll learn a bit about Anonymous by reading it, but it is really the story of one small group, and what they came to achieve.  At least Jake Davis doesn’t need to be worried about being doxed anymore.

Here therefore is a caveat: We Are Anonymous is not actually about Anonymous.  This is a title designed to draw you in.  Hackers and those who think they know about the Internet / code / Anonymous won’t be impressed by this book, which may be looked upon as a long and sound general introduction, which goes into as much pre-trial detail of one group (Lulzsec) as it can. 

The other hacktivist we hear a lot about in We Are Anonymous is Hector Monsegur, aka Sabu, and his story is dramatic enough that it’ll certainly make it to the big screen, sooner or later. While it’s easy for a writer to piece together a picture of a person she’s actually met, as Olson does in the case of Jake Davis, the task of pinning down Sabu is harder.  Consequently he comes across as impulsive, passionate, and duplicitous and at one moment a master criminal while at the next a complete idiot.  You’re left with the feeling that this is probably fair enough, although Sabu seems to have suffered bullying too, not in the least from the NYPD, and other authority figures from school onwards.

In the 1980s the hackers were among the first to figure out this new technology, and it wasn’t until the 1990s when the concept of the Internet really took off, that hackers started being sent to prison, and treated with high suspicion and paranoia.  Beyond 2000, things have got much more serious, and now everybody is obsessed with security, whether it’s identity theft, bombs or hackers.  The Internet is now a part of daily routine, and a lot of the fun has gone, and it’s now the case that it’s easier for people to stay connected than to try and disconnect.

Ironically, Jake Davis is one of the very few of us who has been able to disconnect, thanks to his being disallowed access to the net.  How many of us are jealous of him?  No Internet for a year? Some (like himself, as he revealed in the Guardian in September 2012, in which he is photographed without the trademark shades) would say he is lucky.  Parmy Olson, taken with Jake and enjoying her access, even covers the story of the famous Topiary shades in this book.  As I say, it’s comprehensive.

In concluding, even Jake Davis is happy to style the whole Anonymous phenomenon as a response to the battle for the soul of the Internet — their Internet as he sees it.  Things move quickly and between the publication of We Are Anonymous in June 2012 and Jake’s Guardian article in September 2012, he seems to have changed his mind about how he feels.

Olson’s book thus ends with the kind of threatening statement about the Internet that Jake Davis as Topiary used to make, claiming that the Internet belongs to the hive.  The problem is that merely achieving power in a certain realm doesn’t make you the owner of anything, other than an inflated ego.  The sensible thing to argue is that the Internet is for everybody, and that includes pensioners who can barely open Microsoft Word, businesses and governments.  Yes: the Internet is supposedly for everybody, even for people who don’t have computers, a large percentage of the world.  If on one hand the Internet is policed by the governments, their surrogates and sub-contractors, then what we are reading about in We Are Anonymous is a group of vigilantes, deciding that something is wrong (eg: scientology ) and meting out a public punishment.

We’ve established then that the Internet is an unsafe place.  Governments are logging your every post and keystroke;  there are criminals aplenty, buying and selling credit card details and other forms of access; and there are anonymous (and Anonymous) hackers, crackers and script kiddies, who are out for random kicks, and could attack you on a whim.  Jake Davis’ February 2012 statement, in stark contrast with his Guardian article of September 2012, says that ‘the internet belongs to the trolls and hackers, the enthusiasts and the extremists,’ and that ‘the ownership of cyberspace will always be with the hivemind.’  ‘You cannot make the Internet feel bad,’ he threatens, ‘you can only make the Internet feel the need to have more lulz at your expense.’  In his statement, which seems a straightforward attempt to create fear among the general user, Jake also says: ‘Your intimate relationships and darkest secrets belong to the horde… you cannot escape it and you cannot anticipate it.’

This reads like a piece of propaganda, vague and jabbing insistently at the public fears, instead of allaying them.  Davis is right to point out that users such as himself are hopelessly inured to pornography and violence, but everyone who skims the surface web and treats of the Internet as a glorified television that they can interact with, this is not the case. 

While it’s clear from Parmy Olson’s We Are Anonymous that hackers’ /hacktivists’ targets are usually arbitrary, they are just as often important enough to merit real trouble.  In bringing down the websites of the CIA for example, or the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the kids in question were just showing bravado, enjoying a rush of power and having a go at the man.  You would have to ask that if Anonymous really did own the Internet, so that none of us lamers were allowed on it, would it be so much fun for them?

The best place to find out answers these days is not in the journalism, but in the comment threads.  A review I read of Parmy Olson’s book on Wired.Com, Kevin Poulson’s site, came with this comment at the top o’ the list:  “Calling Anonymous a hacker group simply because they have hackers in their ranks is like calling Walmart a tech firm because they have an IT department... ”  Touché.

As a journalist Parmy Olson cites her sources very well, as I've said.  Reading the extensive notes at the back of We Are Anonymous was interesting, but did provide one revealing shock from the writer herself, the admission that what she would really like to do is to get Jake Davis and Aaron Barr together, because it would be 'intriguing'. 

This is a crazy admission, and perhaps reveals Parmy as less of a journalists than she might think.  First off, putting a cat in a room with some pigeons is an unethical way to get stories, as one must try and make a fair report of events, rather than orchestrate them.  Secondly, Parmy Olson's assertion here that Barr is victim in this circumstance and that Davis is the cyberbully, is also dubious - especially when so much of the early part of the book describes the unethical methods Barr was using to hound Anonymous himself. 

While it's true that Barr did very poorly out of this exchange and suffered as a result, it isn't fair to cite him as the innocent victim here, just because he wears a suit and represents corporate and government interest.  In a way, this tiny footnote spoiled We Are Anonymous for me, as it hinted at external agendas and a lack of impartiality.

Parmy Olson in a nutshell, then, begins the end of the story of Lulzsec.  There isn't a whole lot in We Are Anonymous about the promised 'Global Cyber Insurgency' of the title, but someone else will come along and cover that.  Next up: TeaMp0isoN I guess.  Maybe Barrett Brown, if he gets out of rehab / jail and can finish his book. 

In the meantime, the rehabilitation of Topiary has begun.  The first part of that is that the name ‘Topiary’ is dropped, as are the dark glasses.  As of September 2012, Guardian readers were treated to a profile shot of Jake Davis without the trademark shades, as he presented a contrite and well written piece urging other kids to take a break from their computers, if only for a week.  I’m sure we’ll come back to this, and we support Jake in his efforts to ‘go straight’.  In the meantime, unlike other caught crackers and hacktivists, Jake is sitting this one out and by his own confession, planning a more peaceable and creative career.

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