Origin of Anonymous

Anonymous found its beginnings on the 4chan image board. 4chan is the English spinoff of the popular Japanese image board 2chan. Initially used as a way for fans to discuss manga and anime, 4chan quickly grew in popularity and attracted users of varying interests. A key element to 4chan’s success is the anonymity it provides its users. No accounts are required to post on a board. You can type in a nickname or simply leave the name field blank and your post will be submitted with the handle “Anonymous”. 4chan has contributed significantly to internet subculture since it first launched in 2003, coining several internet memes such as lolcats, rickrolling and pedobear. It has also been used as a call to arms to perform pranks as well as other more nefarious activities such as cyberbullying, violence and pornography.

The Beginning of a Movement

One of 4chan’s most popular boards is the Random or “/b/” board. The content on /b/ is completely unpredictable, from jokes to porn to violent videos, anything could appear on this board. /b/ was also where users would post calls to arms to try and influence the board’s tens of thousands of regular followers to join a protest or perform a prank. One of the first successful “raids” performed by 4chan users was on Habbo Hotel, a popular online game where users could wander around a virtual hotel with avatars and chat in real-time. In 2006, a poster on /b/ encouraged 4chan to flood the game with avatars in suits with afros and block off the popular pool area in the virtual hotel. The raid was such a success it spewed the popular “pool’s closed” meme. Successful raids such as this helped users feel more connected. References to Anonymous as a single group or hive mind, as well as the phrase “We are Legion”, began to grow in use and popularity on the board.

Eventually, the organizers of raids moved out of 4chan’s /b/ board and into IRC (Internet Relay Chat), a real-time chat system that also allowed users to join and post anonymously. Unlike 4chan, though, users on an IRC network could join separate chat rooms, or channels, where conversations are focused on specific topics. Not wanting to lose touch with the 4chan horde, 4chan continued to be used to advertise IRC channels where raids were being planned and organized.

In 2007, Fox News became the first media outlet to report on Anonymous. They did a piece on several of the raids that had occurred on /b/ and referred to Anonymous as a group of “hackers on steroids” and an “Internet Hate Machine”. This over dramatization of Anonymous, which according to Olson is mostly made up of “bored millennials” (insert eye roll at the overused millenials trope) and maybe a handful of hackers with real technical skills, would become a theme when the media reported on Anonymous activities.

In 2008, Anonymous aimed its sights on the Church of Scientology, managing to pull together hundreds of 4chan users to DDOS the church’s site. The attack was so successful, making a significant splash in the media, that thousands more were drawn to Anonymous’s “cause”. The group began their own YouTube channel reporting on Anonymous activities while wearing the Guy Fawkes mask from the 2006 movie V for Vendetta which was quickly becoming a symbol for the more revolutionary side of Anonymous. Things escalated over the next few months, ending with Anonymous organizing public demonstrations outside various scientology sites around the world, establishing Anonymous as a very real and influential organization. The attacks and demonstrations against the Church of Scientology faded out when Anonymous supporters eventually lost interest and the Church of Scientology learned to stop “feeding the trolls”.

Anonymous and Lulzsec

Anonymous, in the early years, was highly dependent on mob mentality. In order to accomplish something big, at least before the time of botnets, you had to have significant momentum and buy-in behind your cause. The new, more revolutionary direction Anonymous was heading in did not sit well with some of the original contributors to raids. They argued that actions done by Anonymous should be for the “lulz” or rather for the joy of laughing at someone else’s pain/humiliation. Anonymous shouldn’t be performing protests for the greater good. 2009 thus saw what Olson calls a civil war between the “moralfags” and the “trolls” in Anonymous.

It wasn’t until 2010 that Anonymous found a new cause to unite behind: censorship. A group of hackers equipped with botnets managed to get the old Anonymous group excited about what they called “Operation Payback”. They performed DDOS attacks against several copyright companies that were trying to shutdown bittorrent sites like The Pirate Bay. With new momentum and the support of a hacker or two with control over large botnets, the new Anonymous leadership performed more DDOS attacks against PayPal, Visa and Mastercard sites later that year. This time their cause was in support of WikiLeaks which these commerce sites had started blocking contributions to.

By the end of 2010, Anonymous had splintered into various operations, some targeting Middle Eastern regimes where democratic uprisings were taking place. Another subgroup of Anonymous had begun targeting an IT security group, HBGary Federal, which had publicly claimed to have uncovered the “real” Anonymous members. In retaliation, Anonymous hacked into HBGary Federal email accounts and published tens of thousands of emails on the company’s sensitive dealings, in addition to taking over their Twitter account and DDOS’ing their website.

With the dramatic takedown of HBGary Federal, Anonymous had gained some real momentum and was fully embracing their fame. They next performed a live hack of the Westboro Baptist website and then proceeded to DDOS Sony, taking down the PlayStation Network (and angering many Anonymous supporters) after Sony decided to sue a hacker. Anonymous then opened a AnonLeaks site to post any data leaks their members uncovered while scanning the internet for vulnerabilities and exploiting them. One of the first leaks they posted was a set of emails from the Bank of America.

Around this time in 2011, members of Anonymous, allegedly those behind the HBGary Federal hack, broke off from Anonymous to start their own hacker group, Lulzsec, which was focused on hacking anyone anywhere for the “lulz”. Lulzsec then hacked Fox, the PBS News Hour and Sony Pictures, leaking sensitive information from each organization and taking credit for the hack on Twitter. The Lulzsec attacks continued to escalate, leading to the defacement of an FBI affiliate website and then eventually the CIA website.

The Lulzsec group then published an Anti-Security (or Antisec) press release and claimed their next attacks would focus on government agencies. They finished their Antisec campaign by publishing names and home addresses of Arizona police officers. After this Lulzsec disbanded, but by the end of 2011 all primary members of Lulzsec allegedly had been arrested due to inside information provided to the FBI from within Anonymous/Lulzsec.

References

We Are Anonymous, Parmy Olson, 2013

ABOUT LAURA KAPLAN

Throughout my 10 year career I have worked as a web developer, systems administrator, software engineer, security analyst and now cybersecurity engineer. I currently develop software applications to automate security vulnerability and compliance scanning and reporting for a multinational financial institution.