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[liberationtech] On Anonymous

Catherine Fitzpatrick catfitz at
Mon Feb 21 01:25:53 PST 2011


I'm new to this list. I'm a freelance writer and Russian translator and have worked in the human rights movement for many years.  I write mainly for on Central Asia. I have blogged about online communities such as Second Life and social media such as Facebook for the last decade at and A recent post on the nature of Anonymous is here: 

I take a very critical view of a variety of things taken for granted by this list, from the culture surrounding open source software to the governance problems implicit in social media platforms, although I'm an early adapter of most of them as well. I imagine I will find out soon enough how much tolerance there is for dissent on a list of people who view themselves as dissenters against a status quo that in fact really doesn't exist anymore.


I'm concerned about corporate malfeasance and possible government complicity too. But I'm just as concerned about the criminality of the "ginormous hacking collective" as you call Anonymous, and I fail to see why we need to tip-toe around such criminality or concede that it gets to behave like the Hell's Angels or that we need to live on an Internet that is ruled by thugs. While traditionally "progressives" are concerned about what seems like an almighty and powerful U.S. government and its unseemly practices with outsourcing to private military and security contractors, and these are certainly legitimate concerns that I share, we live in an era where governments are increasingly weak, and transnational actors are increasingly strong, and the USG was just WikiLeaked, with a quarter of a million documents landing in the hands of an anarchist collective. 

Regardless of the debate about whether and how this should be prosecuted, or whether there should be less classsification of documents (all good to have), the fact is, stealing classified documents is a criminal act, and one that has not necessarily been somehow exonerated by the resulting disclosures, some of which have harmed individual sources and arguably harmed national security, and none of which appear to have worked at all to end two unjust wars. The U.S., is after all, a liberal democratic state entrusted with diplomacy and available for scrutiny by Congress, the courts, NGOs, and the media; under the Obama Administration, it is among the most liberal in history. What was the real purpose in circumventing these democratic institutions through hacking and stealing? Unless you think the world should be ruled by Julian Assange and his fellow anarchists, just what do you think the proper response is for a sovereign government confronted with a
 profound breach of its security?  

Looking at the HBGary story, while there is much horror and outrage and drama raging now in the blogosphere around it, and I do appreciate it, if you look at what actually occurred, some arrogant and unsavory security consultants made a PowerPoint where they over-sold their own abilities and hyped up a lot of stuff. They didn't do any of the things they described. Yes, some of them were bad things, some of them bordering on illegal or actually illegal activity. But...they didn't carry them out. Rather than prodding a Hell's Angel biker on a motorcycle, they...went in an IRC channel. They're open to do so. They then looked around at open social networks, also open for such perusal. 

So...everybody thinks Anonymous is just ducky and nobody ever gets to investigate their online activities? 

The intention of HBGary and its possible clients, while questionable, had at the back of it a purpose that was legitimate: protection of the security of a sovereign, democratically elected government. Remember? By contrast, Anonymous, an unelected and unaccountable gang, used a social hack to gain illegal access to a private company's email and databases and stole and published their email, utterly destroying not only this business but the reputations of the people involved without any due process or legal remedy. Maybe you all agree their reputations deserved to be savaged and maybe you took the same malicious glee in their downfall. Are you *quite* sure that these thuggish methods are going to *always* be used on the 'right" targets and always be "just"?

Again, what Anonymous did was a *crime*. I think it's important to keep a perspective here that on the one side, we have an intent and a discussion but no action, but on the other side, we have actual crime committed. On the one side we have enormous amount of transparency and agitation to prevent the acts of government and its contractors that appear to be unlawful and would threaten the public's privacy; on the other hand we have an unlawful and criminal force -- like a ginormous beehive -- that apparently is unstoppable and which apparently has the sneaking if not open admiration of people in the "Internet freedom" business. I find that very troubling.

The unacceptable -- but clumsy COINTELPRO like campaign plans never happened. Of course, they may be happening elsewhere and it's good to be vigilant. But meanwhile, something else happened -- Anonymous gained more unaccountable and unjust power. Not the clumsy and stupid security firm. Not the already-loathed Bank of America. Not the weakened and stunned USG. And the notion that Aaron Barr went around planning psy-ops and disseminating memes seems pretty awful, but then, Anonymous itself wrote the book on such methods and uses them constantly, above all to distract from their own criminality.

An academic discussion on Internet governance and security that takes a position that the Black Panthers equivalent -- Anonymous -- is somehow above criticism and above sanction because it represents, oh, some revolutionary force achieving "Internet freedom", is like radical chic all over again. Perhaps that's what many endorse. If so, be clear about it, and be mindful of the history of infatuations of the left with violent movements and the tragic consequences.

The HBGary story was so clumsy and so odd in the way it developed, with seemingly experienced security people falling for old tricks and hacks, that I have to wonder if the entire thing was an elaborate sting or decoy operation. 

As for scraping and mining Facebook and Twitter, well, 2.4 million Blackberry users had Ubermedia on them, you think they didn't scrape and mine? 

Folks, we indeed do have a problem. There is a war in cyberspace. It is fought by lots of different forces with lots of different agendas. The methods used by all sides are not lawful.  If you are studying this rather than inciting and abetting this phenomena, you have to keep an open mind about it. If you think the Department of Justice should be going around investigating everybody's PowerPoint and discussions, then watch out, they may investigate yours next.

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

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