In the light of the FBI and Interpol arrests of computer hackers affiliated with Anonymous on March 5 and 6, We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists may get even more attention when it screens at Austin’s South by Southwest film festival (SXSW) next week.
Already at its world premiere in January this year at the Slamdance Film Festival, an underground, alternative movie fest that runs during the Sundance Film Festival, We Are Legion had audiences raving.
“Anonymous is a culture, more than a movement or anything else ... their own history, their own language,” director of the film Brian Knappenberger said in a filmed Slamdance interview. “And I think it’s a new culture in the human experience. It’s one of the most vital and important things happening right now.”
The film was screened at the festival about a week after Anonymous attacked the Department of Justice and the entertainment industry, responding to the shut-down of the file-sharing site Megaupload. Touching on the timeliness of the film’s release, Knappenberger said, “I feel like 2011 was an incredible year for Anonymous, an unbelievable year for the hacktivist and generally the kind of internet culture behind these groups. Even in Time magazine, the protester was the person of the year. I think this is the year of the hacktivist,” the director said in the Slamdance interview.
From 4chan Beginnings to Occupy Wall Street Protests
We Are Legion explores the roots of “hacktivism,” the use of computer systems to make a political point via hacking. It starts with the Cult of the Dead Cow and Electronic Disturbance Theater, organizations from the Nineties, and sets the stage for the current-day hacktivist group Anonymous. It traces the evolution of the group from its beginnings in 4chan, an imageboard, message forum that was launched in 2003, to the group’s Occupy Wall Street protests last year.
Since it began, Anonymous has developed a more politically focused bent, embracing an ideology of internet freedom and freedom of speech. Anonymous’ 2008 Church of Scientology campaign, in which it decided to spread the word that Scientology was a dangerous cult, made headlines. Back then, Knappenberger was fascinated by the actions of the group and even considered making a documentary, but something else came up. Then, about a year ago, “Anonymous roared into action” in a way that hadn’t been seen before, when it came to aid of Wikileaks, the director said in an interview with Indie Film Nation (IFN). This showed a “vibrant evolution of the group,” says Knappenberger.
In the meantime, the group has hacked into the computer systems of government bodies and major companies and corporations such as Sony, PBS, Mastercard, PayPal, HBGary and Visa. They campaign for freedom of speech on the internet and have embraced a wide range of causes, from animal rights to democracy in the Middle East, having supported actions in Tunisia and Egypt during the Arab Spring. They are seen as “internet revolutionaries” by some, as criminals by others.
Who is Anonymous? Taking off the Mask
Having spent several months researching, interviewing and filming, the director managed to gain the trust of some of the Anons. When asked in the IFN interview how he managed to penetrate the group, Knappenberger jokes, “I hung out in the dark corners of the internet.”
He describes the group, which he estimates to have about 9000 members worldwide, as a “loose collective,” a “leaderless decentralized organization,” whereby, he says, the word “organization” is too much. It has a “fractured nature,” but is “cohesive in terms of principle.”
Anons are mainly young males aged in their teens to early Thirties. The “face” of the group is usually a Guy Fawkes’ mask. We Are Legion actually puts faces and names to some of its members. In the documentary, some of them are not disguised “because they don’t do illegal things;” a few have to been to jail already and have nothing to lose.
A splinter group of Anonymous is LulzSec, or LulzSecurity, whose name is a combination of “lulz” (or laughs) and “security”. Knappenberger says that LulzSec is a key part of the culture. It has a kind of maliciousness, a “very robust pranksterism,” the director says. “[It’s] Really funny a lot of times, and a lot of times you’re kind of embarrassed because there’s a layer of maliciousness in there, but you find yourself kind of laughing.”
Some of the We Are Legion interviews were held via Skype, with masked faces and activated voice distortion. The images in the film have a gritty, grainy feel to them. And the director still doesn’t know who some of them are.
What Anonymous Does and How
According to some members, Anonymous has a kind of hierarchy of about 15, who run the online chat rooms; they can make rules or ban people from a channel or network. They can call also send out calls to action.
A few types of attacks associated with Anonymous are:
- Denial-of-service (DoS) attacks: Multiple computer users (ranging from hundreds to possibly thousands) overwhelm website servers or computer network services by sending huge amounts of data; their intent is to render the service unavailable to its designated users. The attacked system then either becomes extremely slow, or unavailable to legitimate traffic. Targets of DoS attacks include companies such as PayPal and MasterCard, as well as government sites, including the CIA's and companies affiliated with the FBI. Attacks like these can be very costly for the victim.
- Hacking: Breaking in to computer systems to access sensitive data like customer information and internal emails. During the hack attack on Sony's systems, for example, Anonymous stole the personal data of about 100 million online video-game users. Sony was forced to close its popular PlayStation online network for almost a month, at an estimated cost of about US$171 million. Anonymous participants claimed not to have orchestrated the attack, but couldn't rule out that Anons were not involved.
- Doxing: Finding personal information about people and disclosing it online. LulzSec has claimed to have done this to two of its participants who are said to have “tried to snitch” on the group; they apparently disclose names, addresses and other contact information.
During the first week of March this year, the collective was shaken by the arrest of Lulz leader, Hector Xavier Monsegur (28). According to court documents, in August 2011, “The Real Sabu,” as Monsegur called himself on Twitter, had been charged by the FBI with a dozen counts of hacking. The FBI had succeeded in turning Monsegur into a mole – and effectively, against his “people.” With Sabu’s help, four men in Britain and Ireland were charged with computer crimes, and a fifth man was arrested in Chicago.
Experts such as Cole Stryker, who studies and writes about the movement, say that this breach of trust is going to be a huge hurdle for Anonymous to overcome. Stryker believes that the hackers will think twice before organizing other attacks, knowing that their network has been infiltrated and that they have been betrayed by one of their own. Within hours after the arrests, however, Anonymous had retaliated, hacking into the PandaSecurity website, a firm that Anons believe aided the FBI investigation.
Lulz: Business as Usual
In We Are Legion, a disguised member is interviewed via Skype chat, with voice distortion activated: “If you want to see what anonymous rise up? Try to shut down the message, try to squash the message, try to chill our speech. Then you’ll see what Anonymous can do.”
The FBI has now tried, and succeeded in shutting down the message of a handful of Anons. Could this be the beginning of the end?
Barrett Brown, a self-proclaimed Anonymous spokesman, doesn’t think so. In a New York Times article written after the crackdown, Brown is quoted as saying: “There are lots and lots of people here that continue to work. The FBI did not really cut the head off of anything. Anonymous will go forward as usual. We are prepared for a big slug-out.”
With the FBI sending out a clear warning that its collective members can be turned, maybe there will be dissension within the group. It remains to be seen what effects the arrests will have on Anonymous. A wall post on LulzSec’s Facebook page on the morning of Monsegur’s outing, however, reads: “Business will continue as usual.”
We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists will be screened four times at SXSW, starting March 11, 2012.
Brian Knappenberger interview with Mike Anthony Smith for Indie Film Nation, YouTube, February 9, 2012
“Arrests Sow Mistrust Inside a Clan of Hackers,” by Somini Sengupta, New York Times, March 6, 2012
“What Do the LulzSec Arrests Mean for Anonymous?”, by Nicole Perlroth, NYTimes.com, March 6, 2012
“Anonymous Documentary We Are Legion Peels Back Hacktivist Group’s History,” by Angela Watercutter, Wired.com, January 22, 2012
“Inside the Anonymous Army of 'Hacktivist' Attackers,” by Cassell Bryan-Low and Siobahn Gorman, WSJ.com, June 23, 2011