In last week’s article about email security for politicians, I linked to an article at techPresident — BREAKING: Sarah Palin Yahoo! email account hacked. In a statement at the end of the article, its author says:

One very interesting element is the reference to “anonymous.” This “group” — a new kind of online network that up til now has been devoted to disruptive action against Scientology — is very sophisticated and probably impossible to stop.

An (ironically?) anonymous commenter, who posted the first comment to the article, said:

You’ve got it wrong on anonymous. They’ve pretty much attacked anyone and anything that they fancy. They’ve hacked the owner of and Gaia Online as well as others.

Both accounts of the “anonymous network” are missing the real heart of the matter, however. It’s my theory that “anonymous” in this sense is not a group, or a “network”, of activists — but, rather, it is an emergent phenomenon.

The name “anonymous” appears to have started out as a mask over the identities of people who targeted Scientologist Websites. It also appears to have started amongst 4chan members, but probably never had a specific membership. It is more an Internet cultural meme that grew out of a sort of in-joke, predicated upon the notion that the prevalence of online activity by Internet users in general without identifying themselves by any individual name — instead accepting the term “anonymous” as it was handed out by the content management systems of many Websites where they posted discussion comments — can somehow be viewed as a sort of gestalt identity.

Consider: millions of Internet users all over the world leave comments on myriad websites with nothing to publicly identify the sources of these comments other than the shared monicker “anonymous”. If the term is viewed as a name rather than a descriptor, “anonymous” might as well be “Bob”. What if millions of Internet denizens all posted anonymous comments on various Websites and, instead of “anonymous”, were identified by the sites as “Bob” when they didn’t specify names for themselves?

This is, I believe, the sort of thinking that gave rise to the initial slogan of the “anonymous” attacks on Scientology (referred to by many as the Chanology project, after the initiating Website community of 4chan): “We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.”

People all over the Internet with a dislike for Scientology, or perhaps just a mischievous streak, joined in on the efforts and adopted the name “anonymous” for such activities. Eventually, of course, “anonymous” started appearing to claim credit for other, unrelated activities — some obvious activism, others obviously not, and perhaps just wantonly destructive. It didn’t take long for the concept to grow beyond its originators.

From an article about the Anonymous phenomenon in the Baltimore City Paper:

In an e-mail, Doc describes Anonymous as “the first internet-based superconsciousness.” Anonymous is a group, in the sense that a flock of birds is a group. How do you know they’re a group? Because they’re travelling in the same direction. At any given moment, more birds could join, leave, peel off in another direction entirely.

From the same article:

[A]n anon in his 30s who says he works in homeland security, compares Anonymous to the War on Terror — you can fight terrorists, but you can’t fight an idea. Anonymous, he says, is an idea.

Of course, the idea has grown beyond even necessarily having a single direction, and the flock of birds analogy is more organized than the composition of the “anonymous” illusory identity is likely to become as time goes on. The case of the person who acquired access to Sarah Palin’s email account is a perfect example of this, one person working alone. The culprit operating under the name “anonymous” was, in this case, apparently David Kernell — the son of a Tennessee state representative, and an Obama supporter.

It is a mistake for security experts to view any act of security cracking or online activism signed “anonymous” as part of some even loosely organized group effort. In time, it will surely become more evident that there is no single, central, organizing principle at work in directing the actions of people using the name “anonymous” in this manner. It is a meme, an emergent phenomenon of a social Internet, and a running gag, rather than a definable network of activists or criminals.

Of course, groups may form and use the name “anonymous”, but some evidence beyond sharing the name should be present before assuming any connection between any two acts under that name. The world simply isn’t that simple.

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