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Explainer: The 'whos' and 'whats' of Anonymous

  • The secret "hacktivist" group Anonymous has become well known in the last few years for its online attacks on governments, businesses and organizations that offend its free-speech, open Internet sensibilities. Click on "next" at left to learn more about the group.

  • What is Anonymous?

    The loose-knit group of computer hackers reportedly formed around 2003 as an outgrowth of the influential Internet messageboard 4chan, a forum popular with hackers and gamers. The group's name came from the early days of 4chan, when a post to its forums where no name was given listed the author as "Anonymous." A spokesman for the group, identified only as “Coldblood” told Britain’s Guardian newspaper in December that the group has about 1,000 members, most of them teenagers. When appearing in web videos, members have disguised themselves with Guy Fawkes masks popularized by the book and film “V for Vendetta.”

  • What are its goals?

    “Coldblood” described Anonymous as "a loose band of people who share the same kind of ideals" and wish to be a force for "chaotic good." As might be expected from such an organization, its goals are somewhat amorphous. In general, its protests tackle issues of free speech and preserving the openness of the Internet.

  • What has Anonymous done?

    Mostly it has attacked the websites of organizations or companies that have offended its sensibilities, including the Church of Scientology, the governments of Australia, Egypt, Iran and Zimbabwe, the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church, and MasterCard, PayPal and other financial companies that cut ties with WikiLeaks following its controversial publication of leaked U.S. military and diplomatic documents. These distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks bombard the target websites with data until they cannot respond, rendering them temporarily inaccessible. In February, however, the group took its “hacktivism” to a new level, breaking into computers operated by HBGary, a U.S. government contractor, and wreaking all kinds of electronic havoc. Among other things, the hackers stole thousands of employee e-mails, which were then published in searchable form on a website similar to WikiLeaks.

  • Are these attacks illegal?

    In a Jan. 27 press release — after British authorities arrested five alleged Anonymous members after the group’s DDoS attacks on financial companies that cut ties to WikiLeaks — Anonymous described its DDoS attacks as “a new way of voicing civil protest.” It argued that arresting its members for taking part in such attacks is akin to “arresting somebody for attending a peaceful demonstration in their hometown.”

    In fact, DDoS attacks are clearly illegal under U.K. laws. U.S. laws are less clear on the issue, requiring prosecutors to show that the attackers gained unauthorized access to a computer and caused loss or damage, said Mark Rasch, head of privacy with the Computer Services Corp. and former chief of the Department of Justice computer crime unit. There is no doubt, however, that the group’s intrusion into HBGary’s computer system ran afoul of federal computer crime statutes, he said.

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