An anthropologist hacks her way into Anonymous

Illustration by James Walton

Under Discussion

Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous
Gabriella Coleman

On July 3, 2011, police officers in San Francisco, working for the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, shot and killed a homeless man. The local activist community responded by organizing an anti-brutality demonstration outside the Civic Center BART station, where the incident had occurred. On the day of the protest, transit authorities shut off cellphone access in four stations. This caught the attention of Anonymous, the hactivist collective that avenges institutional affronts to democratic expression, free speech, and Internet connectivity. Anons retaliated by planning more street protests, hacking BART computers, and releasing the private data of 2,500 patrons. One Anon dug into BART spokesperson Linton Johnson’s personal website and found a picture of him pulling down his Adidas jogging shorts to expose his penis. The Anon published it on a new site, Bartlulz, along with a cheeky banner: “If you are going to be a dick to the public, then Im sure you dont mind showing your dick to the public.”

The stunt was classic Anonymous: politically engaged, ethically complicated, and either prurient or funny, depending on your tastes. Gabriella Coleman, a media studies professor at McGill University with a cross-appointment at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, would go with funny. In the exhilarating, gruelling six years she’s spent embedded in the online community, that kind of irreverence has been a welcome source of comic relief.

I met Coleman in a Montreal coffee shop last January. She has the post-punk look (vintage French glasses, black cropped hair) of a young professor who’s more than comfortable outside of the lecture halls and committee meetings of academia. “You have to be silly and informal to study Anonymous,” she says, laughing. So while she describes the collective as “a populist movement with vanguardist technical elements and Nietzschean overtones,” she also likes it for being “badass.”

As a journalist who sometimes writes about hactivism, I was familiar with Coleman’s work and could see how her politics dovetail with those of the community she studies: she’s left leaning and pro–civil liberties, and she is alarmed by the rise of digital surveillance. I was curious, however, to find out how she deals with the more unseemly side of the culture: How, for instance, does a queer-positive feminist respond to rape jokes or to Anonymous’s fetish for the word fag?

Coleman is part of the post-1980s generation of anthropologists who have made careers out of studying Western subcultures. Her intellectual heroes include Tanya Luhrmann, who has written about modern-day witches in the United Kingdom; Michael Fischer, who studies such scientific communities as the Human Genome Organisation; and Christopher Kelty, a theorist of digital technology and its enthusiasts. Even so, conservative faculty members at the University of Chicago warned Coleman that studying hackers might jeopardize her job prospects. Today, she’s one of the most sought-after academics in her field.

Her work on Anonymous began as a side project, but quickly morphed into a massive, career-defining undertaking. The result is her excellent new book, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, which offers a play-by-play of the collective’s best-known operations and charts the movement’s transition from prankster subculture to something more ambitious and politically engaged.

Her book grapples with one of the most basic but difficult questions that comes up every time the collective strikes: Are the actions of its members ethical? Coleman admires the moral sensibilities of many Anons, but argues that the movement belongs to something more ancient and mythical than ideas of good versus evil. Anons, for Coleman, are twenty-first-century tricksters, incarnations of Loki, Eshu, and Puck. They experiment, sabotage, and offend. They upend the social order, and, in the process, they teach us something about it.

When she began her graduate studies at the University of Chicago in 1997, Coleman intended to focus on healing rituals in Guyana; then Lyme disease left her mostly housebound for a year, and she found herself exploring the online world. It was a fertile moment in Internet history: hackers were feverishly building new applications and redefining copyright conventions so they could freely exchange technologies and ideas. Coleman became enthralled by the lively conversations on message boards, Internet relay channels, and the user-moderated tech blog Slashdot, a precursor to Reddit. She returned from sick leave intent on foregoing Guyana for the geek paradise of San Francisco.

In her first book, Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, which came out in 2012, Coleman argues that the free and open-source software movement, with its commitment to transparency and its opposition to licensing restrictions, is fostering individual freedom at the expense of intellectual property rights. In this respect, it has more in common with the ethos of the eighteenth-century liberal salon than with the neo-liberal patent-court ideals that dominate today. She describes a robust international community where people sometimes speak with more acronyms than words, where the language of coding is inflected with humour, and where practitioners fall into trancelike states behind their computers—a condition called “deep hack mode.”

While working on Coding Freedom, Coleman caught wind of a feud between the Church of Scientology and the hacker underground that had begun in the 1990s. Curious to learn more about the clash between Scientologists, with their perceived rigidity and litigiousness, and the freewheeling, experimental ethos of the tech community, she travelled to sociologist Stephen Kent’s vast Scientology archive in Edmonton, hoping to unearth enough historical material for an article or two.

In January 2008, the story got hot. A crew of ex-Scientology activists and investigative journalists leaked a video of the church’s most famous adherent, actor Tom Cruise, praising it in a stream of crazy (and unintentionally hilarious) non sequiturs. The video went viral, and the church leaders reportedly threatened litigation to stop it from circulating. This attempt at censorship galvanized a new, more aggressive generation of Internet pranksters: they bombarded Scientology offices with prank calls and faxes, and they sent denial-of-service attacks—multiple commands streaming simultaneously from thousands of computers—that caused the church’s website to crash. Then, at the urging of anti-Scientology crusader Mark Bunker, they all took to the streets, parading by the hundreds past church headquarters across the world.

The loosely affiliated crew of pranksters and trolls—Anonymous—had unexpectedly developed a taste for politics. Coleman was hooked: “To see this group transform into something that engaged in earnest activism—to me it was shocking.” She began hanging out on Internet relay channels where Anons discussed operations, and showing up at demonstrations amid swarms of techies.

Getting close to your sources is standard anthropological practice. Field workers abroad will sometimes live with their subjects for years. Coleman has never claimed to be an impartial reporter—“If I had been fifteen and had come across Anonymous, I would have joined them for sure”—and in a secretive community, it’s hard to gain access without pitching in. By 2010, she was editing manifestos, publicizing Anonymous activities on her Twitter account, and demystifying the movement through hundreds of media interviews. (In the movement’s early days, she helped clarify widespread misconceptions of Anonymous as a guild-like society.)

In a subculture peopled by individuals using masks and pseudonyms, Coleman’s public face made her all the more conspicuous, and she became the go-to expert for everybody from the CBC and the BBC to Democracy Now! This position was not without its risks: Anonymous participant and journalist Barrett Brown was shut out from parts of the community for assuming the role of media spokesperson. Even so, that didn’t stop the Federal Bureau of Investigation from later turning over his house and seizing his hard drives. Brown is now imprisoned, having agreed to a plea bargain over numerous charges, including withholding criminal evidence.

To stay on the right side of the law, Coleman refused all invitations to join the secret channels where Anons plan illegal operations. Instead, she acquired details of these activities after the cases have gone to trial. To stay on the right side of Anonymous, she learned not to come across as a fame seeker—or namefag . (In Anonymous parlance, the word fag is as ubiquitous as fuck in a Mamet play. It means, basically, anything.)

Even with her limited participation in the movement, Coleman is careful not to claim insider status. She involves actual insiders whenever possible, either by referring them to journalists or inviting them to deliver guest lectures. When she invited several Anons to visit a class at New York University, for example, they took turns speaking and colouring on the chalkboard. By the end, they’d drawn a rhinoceros with a massive cock.

Even after it developed an activist bent, Anonymous never lost its flair for jokey shenanigans. In 2010, Anons launched Operation Titstorm, a denial-of-service attack against the Australian government in retaliation for tabling porn-censorship regulations. In 2011, to avenge unsympathetic coverage of WikiLeaks and the Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning case, they posted a fake story on the PBS website reporting that Biggie and Tupac, two murdered rappers and the subjects of a feature-length documentary, were still alive. A year later, Anons claimed to have bombed the hard drive of Shirley Phelps-Roper—spokesperson for the homophobic Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka—with gay porn.

“I’ve always thought that humour is a really important vehicle for critique, but a lot of radical direct-action movements—like Earth First! or Sea Shepherd Conservation Society—aren’t particularly funny,” says Coleman. “I haven’t fully resolved my thoughts on the more racist and misogynistic language. I don’t think it’s as simple as people being racist misogynists, even if the language acts in that capacity.”

But irreverence is harder to deal with when it’s at odds with your politics. She recalls 2013, when Anonymous was deeply involved in exposing institutional misconduct over rape cases in Halifax and Steubenville, Ohio. At the time, she came across an Anon whose IRC nickname was Rape. “I was like, That’s really off. But some people want to hold on to this idea that little is sacred, especially with language.”

Transgression in Anonymous isn’t confined to language. “There’s experimentation with sexual culture, too,” Coleman says. “So there’s a lot of joking about fags, and there are also a lot of queer people. There’s also a lot of experimentation with drugs and extreme lifestyles.”

To understand Anonymous’s transgressions, she argues, you have to see them in context. In addition to targeting state power and institutional bungling, Anonymous is playfully subverting our culture of political correctness. This can be ugly at times, but it’s also liberating. “We need cultures of transgression,” she says. “If we simply police norms all the time, we can never articulate truly anti-authoritarian sentiments. And for transgression to be real, it can’t happen at Chuck E. Cheese’s. You can’t have fake transgression.”

In December 2012, AntiSec—an Anonymous cell that targets law-enforcement offices, defence companies, and security firms—levelled one of its most transgressive hacks against the global intelligence company Strategic Forecasting Inc., which is based in Austin. The cell stole 5 million Stratfor emails (which it later released through WikiLeaks); emptied out the corporation’s servers; and procured 50,000 client credit-card numbers, donating an estimated $700,000 of stolen funds to Greenpeace, the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, and others.

The AntiSec team included “Sabu,” the legendary Hector Xavier Monsegur. “I had [initially] kept my distance from him because, to be frank, I found him intimidating,” Coleman writes in Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy. “During chats on IRC, he would drop the word ‘nigger’ and, unlike the trolls, he seemed to be using it without a hint of irony.”

When she finally met Sabu at a Chipotle restaurant in New York’s East Village, he confirmed and confounded those impressions. Sabu was intimidating, but also charismatic, a talented hacker with street smarts and swagger, and a former heroin dealer with a gift for writing impassioned political manifestos. Wariness gave way to affection, and soon she was acting as a confidante. “He had a burning desire for his life story to be put out into the world,” Coleman writes.

As the leaked emails confirmed, Stratfor was spying on numerous activists and advocacy groups—from the Yes Men to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals—whose members include American citizens. Moreover, Stratfor had neglected to take even the most basic precautions with its clients’ data: AntiSec had surprisingly little trouble gathering reams of credit-card information, which was neither encrypted nor password protected.

AntiSec argued that Stratfor’s infractions justified the hack. Other Anons countered that the cell had been reckless and irresponsible. Coleman prefers to reframe the debate: “Tricksters create situations that force people to think,” she says. “That’s what Anonymous is really good at doing—forcing a larger conversation.” In this case, Anonymous showed that an established security firm wasn’t practising much security of its own. Anonymous also put Stratfor in the awkward position of crying foul at a point when its own foul play was being mercilessly exposed.

In 2010—when Anonymous was taking down the websites of PayPal and MasterCard, which had refused to process donations to WikiLeaks—Coleman’s research was fun. “I was having a great time,” she says. “I just couldn’t believe how audacious and bold the hackers were.” But by early 2012, a series of arrests—many accompanied by stiff prison sentences—had shifted the collective’s mood from buoyancy to mistrust.

“There were moments that were psychologically really, really tough,” she says. “You’re bonding with people, but then you can’t share basic things. I hated getting to know people who I didn’t really know.” The strain was wearing on the community, too. In 2012, two of Coleman’s Anonymous acquaintances attempted suicide. “In this climate of menace and threat, I began to suffer weekly nightmares of G-men pounding on my door,” Coleman writes. “I was worried about the future of Anonymous, about my future and the lives of those who had been arrested.”

On March 6, 2012, Sabu contacted her with a cryptic confession, later clarified in a Fox News story: he was an FBI informant, who was turned in 2011. A fresh spree of arrests ensued—the other main actors behind the Stratfor hack are now mostly imprisoned—and Coleman took the news hard. (“It took a month before my anger had receded enough that I could have another conversation with him,” she writes.) She still wonders if their friendship was an FBI set-up.

The toughest moments in Coleman’s research were sometimes the most intellectually productive. Incidents of betrayal, alienation, and even personal attacks gave her the critical distance she needed to write her book. In Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, she channels the pessimism of 2012 to consider the limitations of Anonymous-style pranks. While tricksters are good at exposing malfeasance, she argues, they can lack the capacity to build. You can hack a security firm and reveal its nefarious activity, but that alone doesn’t make people safer from corporate and government espionage. You can expose botched criminal investigations to public scrutiny—as Anonymous did with the Rehtaeh Parsons case in Halifax—but a game-changing intervention into rape culture and systemic misconduct requires a more sustained commitment.

Coleman still loves Anonymous for its irreverence, for its brazenness, and for the way it shamelessly seeks our attention and uses it against us, forcing us to reflect on the absurdities of our world. But tricksters are, by definition, mercurial and distractible. Their primary talent is for acts of political theatre. It’s up to the rest of us to respond.

This appeared in the January/February 2015 issue.

Simon Lewsen
Simon Lewsen has contributed to the Globe and Mail, enRoute, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and MIT Technology Review. He teaches writing at the University of Toronto.
James Walton
James Walton counts Time and The Atlantic among his clients.