We are legion, we do not forget, we do not forgive. Expect us." So read the announcements put out by this leaderless, faceless - but very loud - movement. Well, not quite faceless. Anonymous activists have adopted the Guy Fawkes mask used by the hero of V for Vendetta, Alan Moore's graphic novel, filmed in 2006, about an anonymous hero who takes on the totalitarian regime running Britain in the not-too-distant future.
Over the last month, the organization has hit the headlines after attacking Tunisian government websites in support of the popular protests there. Anonymous activists in Spain have also struck at the SGAE performing rights society over its joint efforts with the government to crack down on websites that facilitate file sharing. The proposed legislation has become known as the Sinde law, taking its name from Ángeles González-Sinde, the culture minister tasked with pushing through the measures, which would see a new government committee tasked with drawing up lists of P2P sites. These sites would then be taken to a special court, which would have four days to rule on whether they should be fully or partially blocked.
Last month Visa and Mastercard's websites were hit after the two credit card companies disassociated themselves from WikiLeaks.
On January 11, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appeared at Woolwich Crown Court, in southeast London. Outside the building were around 30 Anonymous activists, all wearing their V for Vendetta masks. Among them was a 22-year-old calling himself Magnonymous.
"We are opposed to any breach of human rights, and any attack on our rights by government," he says. "If things continue like this, revolution will be our only option."
Magnonymous says he doesn't speak on behalf of anybody; Anonymous is a movement without spokesmen and women, he insists.
"We are not members of any political group, we are not politicians - we are activists. I would be offended if anybody tried to tie me to a political movement," he adds.
All of which makes it difficult to know just exactly what Anonymous is. In many ways it is a symbol of our times, in which cutting-edge technology is increasingly being used by angry young people who no longer see things in terms of left and right. Their parents might have believed in the power of socialism or communism to change things, and then settled for social democracy, but Anonymous believes that all systems are inherently problematic, and end up controlling us. The system, they say, is beyond repair. They are angry at the collapse of the global economy, at what they see as all governments' attempts to hide corruption, at the banks, and at efforts to silence people like Julian Assange. They want everything out in the open. No more secrets.
Estimates suggest that Anonymous is probably only about a thousand strong, with one activist describing it is "quite a loose band of people who share the same kind of ideals" and wish to be a force for "chaotic good."
Global, transnational, transversal, and in its way, highly secretive - it is difficult to know what is going on within Anonymous, given that those involved in it communicate through the internet. It has grown through chat rooms, and through a rising sense of anger that something has to be done to stop big business and bad government.
The membership of Anonymous is impossible to pin down; it has been described as being like a flock of birds - the only way you can identify members is by what they're doing together. Essentially, once enough people decide that an issue is worth pursuing in large enough numbers, it becomes an "Anonymous" cause.
Anybody can be part of Anonymous, anybody can access www.whyweprotest.net and join in the conversation, make their contribution, and suggest direct action against whatever injustice they see or feel strongly about. Eventually, some kind of agreement is reached about the next target of their anger.
Anonymous was born in 2003 out of the influential internet message board 4chan, a forum popular with hackers and gamers. The group's name is a tribute to 4chan's early days, when any posting to its forums where no name was given was ascribed to "Anonymous". But the ephemeral group, which picks up causes "whenever it feels like it," has now "gone beyond 4chan into something bigger," its spokesman said.
The group's current campaign in support of WikiLeaks is undoubtedly one of its most high-profile activities so far. The group gained notoriety more recently for a number of sustained assaults against the sites of US music industry body RIAA, Kiss band-member Gene Simmons, and the firms of solicitors involved in lawsuits against people suspected of illegal file sharing. In early 2008, Anonymous launched a campaign against the Church of Scientology, bringing down related websites and promising to "expel" the religion from the internet.
Anonymous activists say that they are supporting WikiLeaks not because they agree or disagree with the data that is being sent out, but because they disagree with any from of censorship on the internet. They argue that if WikiLeaks falls without a fight then governments will think they can just take down any sites they disagree with.
On December 8 the online presence of two major credit card companies, Mastercard and Visa, was compromised by a "distributed denial of service" (DDoS) attack, thought to have been orchestrated by Anonymous. The websites of both companies were inaccessible for a significant period.
It was no coincidence that at 2pm GMT on December 8, the WikiLeaks website published a page detailing US State Department lobbying support for Visa and MasterCard earlier this year (there were fears the credit card giants could be disadvantaged by a Russian law allowing domestic banks to handle all card payments inside Russia).
Subsequent reports on December 9 suggested that Amazon and Paypal had also been attacked. Both companies recently terminated their business relationship with WikiLeaks. A DDoS attack, which is illegal in most jurisdictions, stops a website from working by overloading it with visitor requests. In recent weeks the WikiLeaks website has been hit by such attacks.
Anonymous invites supporters to download LOIC, an open-source tool originally designed to see how web applications behave under heavy internet traffic. Supporters then set up their computers to connect to a controlling server, which in turn coordinates the "stress test" attack.
Anonymous spokesman Coldblood has told the British media that the group is now engaged in a "war of data."
The Spanish site of Mastercard was hit as part of the coordinated attacks against the credit card. "We had what we call super heavy traffic," says Cristina Feliú, the company's spokeswoman in Spain. "That means that anybody trying to use our page that day would have found it very slow." But she says that the attacks failed to crash the site, and didn't interrupt business, and that there were no attempts at fraud by those trying to collapse the site. "The next day we were back to normal," she says.
Although mostly illegal around the world, a DDoS is not the same as hacking into a system, although Anonymous has its hackers. One, a 16-year-old from the Netherlands, was arrested at his home in the Hague in December after he was tracked down by the FBI. Philter, a 19-year-old "hacktivist," described the youth as "inexperienced - he didn't take the right precautions."
Anonymous soon found itself in a cyberwar. For several days in early December, from their chat rooms, the Anonymous ones watched a hacker called the Jester, who seemed to be coordinating a series of attacks on internet service providers hosting WikiLeaks. They had noticed the Jester's pro-censorship credentials, deducing he must be receiving help. Speculation mounted that the Jester was a shadowy conduit working at the behest of the US authorities. "We wondered who was really behind his anti-WikiLeaks agenda," said a source.
Attempts to railroad WikiLeaks off the net quickly failed. Removing its hosting servers has increased WikiLeaks' ability to stay online. More than 1,300 volunteer "mirror" sites, including the French newspaper Libération, have already surfaced to store the classified cables. Within days the WikiLeaks web content had spread across so many enclaves of the internet it was immune to attack by any single legal authority.
It isn't easy to talk to Anonymous activists. They tend not to trust the media, and worry that their emails are being intercepted. But the fact that EL PAÍS was among the traditional media chosen by WikiLeaks as an outlet for the stolen 250,000 US State Department cables has given the newspaper a certain credibility.
Last week, EL PAÍS contacted members of Anonymous in Spain. We made it clear that they would not be speaking in any kind of official capacity. They refused to be interviewed in person or by phone. The problem is that as soon as anybody in the collective talks, they are shunned by the rest of Anonymous. This is what happened to Coldblood, who talked to the British media in early December. "Coldblood has been ostracized," says Hamster, a British-based Anonymous member since 2008, whom I met in London earlier this month.
That said, members of Anonymous Spain agreed to answer written questions.
Question. How many people belong to Anonymous in Spain, and how many around the world?
Answer. It is impossible to give figures. That is what is so great about Anonymous. Anonymous is nobody and everybody. We are like insurgents working in cells. We work independently, we have a common ideology, and we agree to work together if the activity is something we believe in. But there are probably between 1,000 and 2,000 people in Spain involved. Some do so by supporting us on Facebook and Twitter, while others are more active; there are probably around 100. Around the world, who knows? Maybe tens of thousands.
Q. How many of them are involved in DDoS?
A. In the attacks against the law the Spanish government wants to pass to block downloading sites, we had around 500 people connected to our control system. But there could have been more, because some took part by themselves, or using other systems, like Linux.
Q. What websites or chat rooms do you operate?
A. There is no main source for our activities. No single web or chat room. We have a network of chat rooms known as IRC Anops. These are where we meet to talk and discuss events like Operation Payback, or Hispano. If we reach agreement about doing something, then plans are distributed through blogs and anonymous websites, right down to Twitter and Facebook. This is a well-organized structure, although there is no leadership or initial source for anything we do.
Q. What would you say to people who accuse you of being hackers?
A. Most people involved in Anonymous are not hackers in the traditional sense of the word. They are users of the internet like anybody else, but are motivated by a desire to do something - in this case, digitally. We have hackers among our ranks, for example, those in charge of IRC, or those who program LOIC. And that is what is so beautiful about Anonymous. It only takes one genius to program something, and then it can be used by thousands of other anonymous people, even if they know nothing about computers. We are like a cyber army made up of thousands of hackers who can bring down any network we set our sights on.
Q. What are the basic principles you operate by?
A. They are few and very simple, and this allows us to bring together a huge number of people. Anonymous is about not having leaders, and it is about attacking corruption at all levels of power and business. And we believe in the absolute freedom of the internet.
Q. Isn't there a danger that somebody could infiltrate and start controlling you?
A. That's impossible, because each anonymous operates individually, and decides whether they want to take part in an operation, regardless of what the others decide. If you think of activist organizations back in the 20th century, they always ran the risk of being infiltrated by somebody who can work their way to the top. But that is impossible in Anonymous, because there are no leaders, there isn't a leadership, there is no hierarchy. That said, we do know that there have been attacks against Anonymous. The FBI opened an investigation following Operation Payback; and there have been sophisticated attacks against our computer systems, which we think were organized by the security services of the West. Fortunately, because we are not centralized in any way, these kinds of attacks have little real impact.
Q. What is Anonymous most concerned with at the moment?
A. The most important thing, our real concern, is to continue fighting for the principles we stand for. So we are putting together phase two of Operation Sinde, which will see protests on January 18, which is the final date for amendments to the proposed law in Congress. At a global level we have Operation Tunisia, in support of the demonstrators protesting against the government there: we have hit Tunisian government websites, and we have also put together a kit to help Tunisian dissidents themselves. Looking to the future we are working on Operation Quicksilver, which should shake up the internet, but we can't reveal any details at the moment.
Anonymous owes its current high profile to the WikiLeaks affair. The online site is perhaps closest in spirit to Anonymous: a single-issue organization dedicated, in this case, to the principle of transparency in government. The arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on charges of sexual assault allegedly committed in Sweden last summer following the release of the WikiLeaks documents smacked to many, inside and outside of Anonymous, of a coordinated persecution campaign aimed at silencing him, as did the decision by Visa, Mastercard, Paypal, Amazon, and other organizations to disassociate themselves from WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks says that it has no links to Anonymous. The organization's second-in-charge, Kristinn Hranfsson, is on record as saying that WikiLeaks has played no part in any of Anonymous' initiatives.
Sipping on a coffee in a café in London's Oxford Street in early January, Hamster connects his iPad to the www.whyweprotest.net site. He is connected to the site almost all the time, and is continually checking it throughout our conversation.
He says that around 33,000 people are registered users of whyweprotest. Most are Anonymous members or sympathizers. "The most aggressive ones are from Anopops, but I'm less aggressive," he says. There are those in Anonymous who disagree with the policy of DDoS attacks. "I think that these attacks discredit us," says Magnonymous. "They will use them to criminalize us, and generate negative publicity," he adds, saying: "We certainly shouldn't use violence. Anybody who suggested violence would be kicked out of the group." But the cyberwarriors have their site: whywefight.net.
Hamster joined Anonymous after quitting the Church of Scientology. "I realized that they weren't helping me at all. They just want to manipulate you." He has retained his links to Scientology, and still attends meetings every week, using the information he gleans about the sect to discredit it online.
The Church of Scientology is one of Anonymous' longest-standing targets. In fact, it was behind the creation of Anonymous. The fight against Scientology dates back to the 1990s, but really took off in 2008 through Anonymous. It would be fair to say that Anonymous is anti-religion, and particularly the mix of science with religion, as explains Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist at the University of New York who knows as much about Anonymous as anybody. She says that Scientology and Anonymous are about as different in their approaches and beliefs as it is possible to be.
Anonymous says that it will continue to attack the Scientologists, but is happy to broaden the scope of its activities whenever and wherever it sees injustice, and it will mainly continue to do so through the internet.
"If there is going to be a revolution," says Hamster, "the internet will provide us with the technology to do so."