I started to skim the latest cover story from the New Yorker and couldn’t stop reading it. It’s a long but fascinating chronicle of the history of Anonymous, and particularly of Christopher Doyen, a.k.a. “Commander X,” one of the early participants in Anonymous and the Peoples Liberation Front.

Aron Barr of H.B. Gary was attempting to identify Commander X when he was targeted by Anonymous, leading to the hack of the HB Gary emails (which I still maintain is one of the most under-reported stories of the past decade, showing clearly that the U.S. government was using BofA as a cutout to target Wikileaks, and engaging defense contractors to employ tactics and software developed for use against terrorists to target American journalists).

Doyen is still on the run from the U.S. government, and the article’s author David Kushner had to go to great lengths to meet and interview him. There is tons of fascinating stuff in the article, some of which has been covered before, but this was probably my biggest takeaway:

Anonymous might be the most powerful nongovernmental hacking collective in the world. Even so, it has never demonstrated an ability or desire to damage any key elements of public infrastructure. To some cybersecurity experts, the dire warnings about Anonymous sounded like fearmongering. “There’s a big gap between declaring war on Orlando and pulling off a Stuxnet attack,” James Andrew Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me, referring to the elaborate cyberstrike carried out by the U.S. and Israel against Iranian nuclear sites in 2007. Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School, told me, “What we’ve seen is the use of drumbeating as justification for major defense spending of a form that would otherwise be hard to justify.”

During the Ferguson marches, there was an Anonymous-identified action that made public the name of a police officer they believed to be responsible for Michael Brown’s death after the Ferguson police department steadfastly refused to do it — but they had the wrong guy. There’s a whole book about what happened with Doyen, Anonymous and Ferguson, and there was considerable dissent about publishing the name, but the way that Doyen and Anonymous quickly mobilized in support of the protesters was really interesting.

After speaking with one of the local Ferguson protesters Kareem (TefPoe) Jackson, Kushner writes:

As with the Arab Spring operations, Anonymous sent electronic care packages to protesters on the ground, including a riot guide (“Pick up the gas emitter and lob it back at the police”) and printable Guy Fawkes masks. As Jackson and other protesters marched through Ferguson, the police attempted to subdue them with rubber bullets and tear gas. “It looked like a scene from a Bruce Willis movie,” Jackson told me. “Barack Obama hasn’t supported us to the degree Anonymous has,” he said. “It’s comforting to know that someone out there has your back.”

The article goes on to say that the level of tech sophistication being employed by Anonymous is generally not that great. But their very existence, and their ability to mobilize quickly presents a serious potential threat to the status quo. It’s no wonder that at top-level meetings at the White House about potential cybersecurity threats, Anonymous has the dubious honor of being referred to as “Exhibit A.”

Photo by Enrique Dans under Creative Commons license