The faces behind the mask

Four members of Anonymous talk to EL PAÍS about the group The hackers have published the personal data of public figures they consider to be enemies

The anons R. (l) and Lolo, in R's house in a working class district of Madrid.
The anons R. (l) and Lolo, in R's house in a working class district of Madrid.SAMUEL SÁNCHEZ

On Friday, December 17, 2010, four days before Congress was slated to vote on anti-piracy legislation known popularly as the "Sinde Law" (after its main sponsor, then-Culture minister Ángeles González-Sinde), J. called a protest demonstration in Málaga's Constitution Square. Two people showed up: himself and G. "I am demon, and you are stration," J. told his fellow protester. They then donned the Guy Fawkes mask, popularized by the movie V for Vendetta, and proceeded to march before seven surprised-looking police officers who had been sent to oversee the protest.

A little over a year has elapsed since then, and the mask has become an international icon for a movement called Anonymous - a slippery, motley army of activists and hacktivists who occasionally jump from the world wide web to the streets, with their masks on. The Spanish anons' latest deed took place on January 28, when they published personal information about major figures from the world of culture, including González-Sinde and her ministerial successor, José Ignacio Wert.

It was another turn of the screw in the movement's repertoire of activism. But not all its members agreed with it. There are lots of anons in this unlikely organization, and the mask conceals many different faces. Anonymous is a movement with no leaders or spokespeople. They claim to fight for transparency, human rights and freedom of expression. If an insider attempts to stand out above the rest or show his face, he is swiftly crushed.

Four days after that two-person protest that was watched over by seven law enforcement officers, J. took the action online again. Using the blog Anonymous Valenciano he set Operation Without Sinde in motion: an attack against the websites of PSOE (Socialist Party) and CiU (a Catalan nationalist grouping), the political parties that supported the anti-piracy legislation. There were 24 hours left to go before the vote in Congress.

J. used Facebook to spread the word about the event, then set it in motion through Twitter, and recruited anons for the attack through IRC (Internet Relay Chat) channels. Around 5,000 people participated in the operation that brought down both parties' websites.

"That is the power of the internet: the dissemination of an idea depends on how good it is. If what someone is saying makes sense, the collective intelligence will elevate it. The next day, the parties did not dare support the Sinde Law," says J., smiling proudly as he remembers those heady days. We are sitting at a cafeteria in downtown Málaga. J. is impeccably dressed, wearing a reddish tie and carrying some court papers under his arm. He is a 35-year-old lawyer, an uncommon career profile in the Anonymous movement.

J. does not support the latest attack by the collective. "What Sinde is doing in politics is miserable, but you have to respect people. I did not disseminate the link. The end does not justify the means," he says.

Disseminating the link. That's how easy it is to participate in an Anonymous attack. Operations are coordinated through IRC channels or Twitter accounts. When the time comes to bring down a website, an anon sends out a message with a link to the target; any follower on the social network may then click on it, thereby entering a LOIC (Low Orbit Ion Cannon), an application that carries out Distributed Denial of Service attacks, essentially massive communications requests to the target server that effectively saturate it, making the website unavailable for a period of time. As long as one keeps the page open, the target is being attacked. LOIC can also be downloaded onto anyone's computer.

Despite the epic vocabulary employed in Anonymous' messages, attacking a website is basically nothing more than clicking your mouse. "In reality, it is like taking part in a street demonstration," says A., a 20-year-old computer science student from Málaga.

"Instead of blocking off a street, you block off a website. It is a small tool to express your disagreement with something."

A.'s first experience as an anon was the attack against VISA's website in December 2010. Back then, the financial giant was trying to strangle WikiLeaks over Cablegate, the publication of classified US State Department cables. A. made his computer available for the attack.

The LOIC program, he explains, sends constant information requests to the server that hosts a specific website, such as that of VISA. Each time a request arrives, the server spends some time trying to answer it. LOIC keeps making up file names that it requests from the server. When a lot of people do this in a coordinated manner, the website collapses. That is also what happened recently in Greece, where Anonymous brought down the Justice Ministry's site.

The anons comprise an "anomalous" movement, says A.; "a para-posse" is how R. describes it.

"We are pissed-off citizens who want to express our discontent," says the latter in a Madrid cafeteria. "Anger is growing, and this is our way of channeling that feeling of injustice and hate." The movement has had many targets since its inception. In 2008 they set their sights on Scientology, but pedophiles, drug traffickers, political parties and financial giants have also felt their wrath.

But what took place last month was a whole new ball game. It was a larger blow, and a much more controversial one. Like J., A. from Málaga did not support it. "The way in which it was done was ugly, and so was the intention of causing personal harm, together with its intimidating message. You can protest against an organization, but you should never cause personal harm."

In this recent attack, Anonymous published González-Sinde's cellphone number, her email address, her home address and even photographs of her house; it did the same with the current minister, Wert, as well as with Spanish movie actors and directors who allegedly support the anti-piracy legislation, such as Ana Álvarez, Chus Gutiérrez, Carlos Bardem; the singer David Bisbal was also on the list.

On the day of the operation, one of the victims, the actor Carlos Bardem, decided to face Anonymous single-handedly, and embarked on a dialectical battle on Twitter that lasted several days. He accused the "little masked dudes" of being second-rate revolutionaries and called them Nazis for punishing people who disagree with them. He argued that revolution does not mean intimidating people who think differently. He held that real revolutionaries do not hide their faces.

"You're a bunch of chickens who play at being revolutionaries from the safety of anonymity. It's lame and it's yellow," he tweeted on January 31.

In that unequal dialectical battle with various members of Anonymous on Twitter, it is possible to appreciate the various attitudes within the collective. Some eventually admitted that the attack was a mistake and asked that the actor no longer be harassed with calls to his cellphone. Others, however, hurled insults at him.

"They've become radicalized and they've made a mistake," holds J. "I am part of Anonymous, but I've decided to take my activism down a different road."

The story of this lawyer-turned-anon is worthy of note. When the movement was taking its first steps in Spain, a year ago, he was one of its most combative members. He got things moving. He shook up the web. He used his blog to call for protests across Spain.

The first event he organized drew two people, including himself. The second one attracted 300. Demonstrations sprung up like mushrooms across the territory. The success of the operation to bring down the websites of the political parties that supported the Sinde Law was encouraging. Things are moving, Anonymous is alive in Spain, the time has come, he thought: we have to ruin the Spanish film industry's big night. And that was the origin of Operation Goya, so named after the Goya Awards, Spain's equivalent of the Oscars.

As bold as brass, J. fueled the protest in front of Madrid's Teatro Real on the evening of the Goya awards ceremony. It was the first notorious act by Spanish anons in history.

J. loaded up a car with 700 Guy Fawkes masks and drove to Madrid. At a Granada rest station, he posted a note on his blog calling people to meet at the entrance of the Ópera subway station (closest to the Teatro Real) where he would hand out the masks. His message quickly made the rounds, and viral communications did the rest. He says that by the time he reached the subway station, there were 1,000 people waiting for him.

There was a moment of fear, he says, when he left the car in the parking lot under the Royal Palace. A police officer asked him and his companions to open up the trunk, where they were carrying 700 cardboard masks, and as many rubber bands to make the disguises on site. Fortunately for them, the backpacks and coats that covered the material, coupled with the officer's lack of curiosity, saved them from being found out. Near the subway entrance, anons from all over were picking up the material and making their own masks to wear outside the gala. The media gave ample coverage to the protest.

In fact, J. was so driven to action that some anons never forgave him for his excessive initiative. They blamed him for the fact that he requested permission for the protest - apparently an offense in the collective's code of conduct - without first consulting with the other anons. Some applauded him; others accused him of being too keen on leadership, a trait that is considered unforgivable. J. decided to stand aside and let others do the work.

The theory goes that Anonymous' decisions are made as a result of a broad consensus. The anons come together in chat rooms and put forward their proposals. Everybody expresses their opinion, and attack decisions are voted on. Once a consensus is reached, the decisions move on to Twitter, the great loudspeaker that allows these attacks to extend across the world wide web at a devilish speed.

The influx of voices in these IRC channels suggests that the number of people who have joined the movement in one way or another is growing. "A year ago, there was an average of 10 people in the IRC channels," J. recalls. "Now you find over 120."

R. did not participate in the vote that approved the last Anonymous attack in Spain. But he saw that many anons supported it in the chat rooms. There were some voices of dissent, too.

"There will be more leaks because they create a huge impact," warns R., sitting inside his living room in a blue-collar area of Madrid. "It is an act of vandalism and unethical, but it is a necessary violence."

R. is 20 and he works for computer security firms. Although he says that nobody should call themselves a hacker, because it is the community that hangs that medal on you, we could, for the sake of simplicity, consider him one. His résumé certainly suggests it. He got his first computer at age seven. By the time he was 11, he was already programming. His skills at penetrating networks did not take long to develop. "But I've never screwed anyone over," he underscores. In other words, he is supposed to be a good hacker, not the kind who breaks into people's bank accounts. He has, however, been able to enter the systems of a major social network and also a bank. When he finds vulnerabilities like these, he gets in touch with the company and gives them 72 hours to solve the problem. "Otherwise, I go ahead and publish that vulnerability, unless it is something really serious," he explains. That is the way of the hacker.

R. claims that peaceful actions no longer work, and that is why we should all expect more violent deeds from Anonymous. At the time of this interview, the Stop Online Piracy Act in the United States and the shutdown of Megaupload were two major blows that the collective was preparing to fight against.

"We cannot just calmly stand by," he says. "Our actions lie somewhere between throwing a Molotov cocktail at a policeman and sitting around on the couch. We're going to start getting a little more violent from now on."

Neither he nor his associate Lolo, a student of social and cultural anthropology at Madrid's Complutense University, feel that this latest attack was as serious as has been suggested. "Considering the data that was published, it does not seem that relevant to me. It's a warning."

- But is that not a way of threatening people?

- That's part of the game. It's a warning. But there is no desire to take it further.

A year ago, decisions were being made in open chat rooms where anyone could come in, says J., the anon who encouraged the attacks against political parties' websites. Anyone includes the police, of course.

Those chat rooms have gradually been closed off, and access granted through an invitation from the webmaster. This means that decisions and votes are now in the hands of fewer anons. "But in any case, if people don't like a certain action, when it reaches more open rooms people have no problem shooting it down," explains J.

The publication of personal data of alleged supporters of the Sinde Law, which was followed by threatening phone calls and caused fear among some of the targets, has fed a growing criticism against this type of attack.

"A significant part of the hacktivist community considers that these actions are crossing a line," says Pablo Soto, the Spanish programmer who was sued by recording companies for creating peer-to-peer file exchange programs. "Publishing personal information is outside the limits of hacktivism and the hacker philosophy."

R. says it is more than likely that the collective's next moves will be directed at banks. On Wednesday February 1 at 2.43pm, the conversation at one of Anonymous' Spanish-language chat rooms focused on "preferential shares." Anons like James, Sócrates and Thunder were connecting to take part in the conversation.

Meanwhile, the movement is working on its next moves. There will be a repeat of Operation Goya. As they themselves like to say in an intimidating tone: "We are Anonymous. We are legion; we do not forgive, we do not forget. United as one, divided by zero. Expect us."

 

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