The reports have been trickling in all day. FBI agents across the country are raiding homes and bringing in suspected members of the hacking group known as “Anonymous.” No word yet on how many actual arrests have been made, and only one suspect has been publicly named so far.
What I suspect Federal authorities will soon discover is that they are dealing with a very sophisticated mob of highly intelligent people who are utterly without scruples. Many members of the group taken as individuals are no doubt as non-threatening as your friendly neighborhood code-monkey. They’re gamers. Monty Python fans. Pop culture connoisseurs. Avid readers. Highly skilled – though while some will have capitalized on this to a great degree, a number of others are likely slackers. These latter are the Best Buy employees that sneer at you quietly as you ask inept questions about USB Hard Drives and willingly pay bloated retail prices for what they buy from Newegg.com, or through gray market suppliers. I’d venture to guess that with the exception of those that have studied the martial arts in conjunction with avid anime obsessions, or perhaps those who’ve learned actual swordplay in the context of LARPing, few members of the group have ever felt personally powerful in their entire lives.
And that’s what makes them dangerous. Because as a distributed collective, they function on the Internet with god-like power.
I’ve never known that power personally, but I always hoped I’d have a chance. I remember as a teen, back in the 1990s, when I first plugged in a modem and saw what it could do. I slipped into the bitstream at 2400kbps and started pulling down phone numbers for local BBSes. I can’t remember where I found my first number. Probably got it off of CompuServe. I’d spend my evenings tying up my family’s phone lines dialing up, playing Legend of the Red Dragon, and downloading games like Kingdom of Kroz and Castle Wolfenstein 3D and the original Doom. I installed a tagline generator that inserted witty one-liners like “Where We Operate at a 90 Degree Angle to Reality” at random at the end of my posts. I cut my teeth in online Catholic apologetics against a particularly acerbic British atheist known online only as Fox, but whom I later met in real life and found to be a very nice guy during my one-and-only guest stint on Mad Trivia Party. He even gave me a ride home.
I also poked around hacking and phreaking texts, read anti-authoritarian classics like Jolly Roger’s Cookbook and thought that the Hacker Manifesto was one of the coolest things ever put on virtual paper. I received my certificate proving that I was one of the first 200 Internet users in Broome County, NY when Spectra.net came online in 1994. (I should have kept that certificate. My kids will wonder some day about what the world was like before the Internet…) By the time I read about the exploits of Kevin Mitnick in the 1995 book CYBERPUNK: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier, I felt like I knew my way around the dark corners of cyberspace a little bit. I knew there was a future in fighting cybercrime, and I thought about how awesome it would be to be in on it.
But I was lazy and undisciplined. I couldn’t make myself even learn how to program in BASIC, despite having a book aimed at teaching kids to do just that. I never bothered with HTML until I was in college, and then I relied on WYSIWYG editors. I had too strict of a moral code to be a hacker, and not enough motivation to lay the foundations for a career in cybercrimes enforcement, so I did nothing. But I remember the dream. I remember reading Neuromancer again and again, not really getting it but knowing what it represented. I remember how awesome it felt, thinking about how you could exist in a world outside the system and nobody else knew who you were or where you were or how to stop you. How you could fight against anyone that way, no matter how powerful. You could cruise through the darkness of cyberspace at the speed of data – which was always increasing – doing whatever you wanted. It was intoxicating.
These people in Anonymous, they knew these feelings too. And the ones that are getting picked off right now, they’re probably the lazy ones. The slackers. The ones like me, who never had the discipline to really see it through. Who took shortcuts and didn’t cover their trails. Who wrote sloppy code. But there are so many more out there, and they are more careful. Smarter. Better trained. They probably work for cybersecurity firms themselves, and know all too well how the establishment thinks and how to break through. The FBI is just thinning the herd.
I’m not rooting for Anonymous, and I pretty much never root for the Federal Government. But I think a war is brewing, and it’s not going to end any time soon. The FBI is going to be their next target, because they think in terms of hitting back twice as hard. The Internet makes a hacker feel invincible. It’s maybe the only time he feels like that. Probably not in life, probably not with women, probably not in his job. But you can’t underestimate how much not feeling that power in every other part of their lives will motivate these guys. They think of themselves in terms of David and Goliath. Or Robin Hood. Or, as the mask they often don show, as V.
And they believe they can win.
Steve Skojec is a storyteller, writer, blogger, photographer, designer, and sci-fi fan. He is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. He lives in Arizona with his wife Jamie and six of their seven children.