Anonymous Has Changed the Way We Think About Anonymity

Responsibility can still be sought even among those with a modicum of operational anonymity​.

Gabriella Coleman

Image: Vincent Diamante/Flickr

For Guy Fawkes Day on November 5, author Gabriella Coleman published a new chapter to her book, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, on the state of Anonymous, its use of doxxing, and accountability. We've reprinted an excerpt of the chapter here with the permission of Verso Books.

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More than any other political movement, past or present, Anonymous provides the ideal case study through which to probe the workings, benefits, contradictions, and limitations of applied anonymity-in-action. And as this privacy movement coalesces, I have observed a distinct tension among those who believe in anonymity as a politically useful tool. Even as many leftist and liberal advocates unequivocally support a right to encryption, they also sometimes express a deep discomfort about the use of secrecy among activists, the role of anonymity in general, and the function of Anonymous in particular.

To put it slightly differently, many are uncomfortable with the way Anonymous, and anonymous actions more generally, lack accountability or, in a more trenchant version of the criticism, demonstrate basic cowardice. One academic bluntly expressed his discomfort with anonymity recently by declaring "the opposite of anonymity is responsibility."

While the association between anonymity and irresponsibility is far more complex than that statement implies, it is undeniable that a core feature of intentional cloaking is the ability to evade attribution. Privacy scholar Helen Nissenbaum has defended anonymity on these very grounds: "the value of anonymity," Nissenbaum asserts, "lies not in the capacity to be unnamed, but in the possibility of acting or participating while remaining out of reach, remaining unreachable."

It is difficult to boil down the workings of anonymity within Anonymous to a single logic, however: whatever formulation you come up with, it can always be adopted and repurposed, in different ways and towards different ends, by whoever wants to use it. It can never be owned, much less controlled, effectively because any attempt to do so will change the thing into something other than anonymous; the ideal itself is thus, in some ways, incorruptible (or endlessly corruptible)—always outside the reach of power, even if those temporarily experiencing it, or who believe themselves to be experiencing it, can themselves be grasped.

Although Anonymous participants are veiled by a pseudonym whenever they act in public, it is also vital to emphasize that most of the actions themselves are in no way carried out in secrecy. These activists organize on public chat channels, issue press releases, and announce their causes and offer reasoning in dramatic videos. They are also typically in direct contact with local non-Anonymous activists and journalists. During the first few days of OpFerguson, for instance, CNN was in contact with participants on IRC, attempting to lure them into live TV appearances. It is hard to imagine a journalist would be able to secure similar upfront access with terrorists or black hat criminal hackers who seek—at all costs—to evade contact with the state and the public at large.

Most Anons, in other words, are not hiding out in the Internet's equivalent of the Tora Bora caves, scheming in total darkness.They are acting primarily in the light of day, albeit with a measure of safety—just enough to allow them to act at all.

Responsibility can still be sought even among those with a modicum of operational anonymity

Typically, it is also straightforward to associate particular operations with specific groups, Twitter accounts, IRC networks, or individuals. By way of an example, take OpCyberPrivacy. Soon after the group behind the OP completed a series of DDoS attacks in protest of Canada's Bill C-51, another Anonymous hacker known as ro0ted announced that he had hacked a Canadian government website. He released employee names and credentials. Initially, journalists pinned the hack to the OpCyberPrivacy Anons. But its participants, who had nothing to do with the hack—and in fact vehemently criticized it as irresponsible for its violation of privacy—immediately reached out to the journalists to seek a correction.

As any cursory investigation would have revealed, ro0ted did indeed claim involvement with Anonymous. But not with OpCyberPrivacy, rather with the Anonymous cyberguerrilla network. Most of the articles were quickly amended, and a characteristic of Anonymous was made clear to those paying attention: responsibility can still be sought even among those with a modicum of operational anonymity. Even if most actions performed under the mantle of Anonymous can be connected to some responsive entity, many observers still express concern about accountability when there is no ultimate recourse to legal identity. One question frequently lobbed my way is: If Anonymous is clandestine, how can they be answerable to the communities they work with?

Yet it is worth considering to what extent such responsibility is possible in communities that are ostensibly transparent and accountable. To probe this further, consider the field of journalism—often posited as the quintessentially transparent enterprise. Journalists publish stories with their legal names and the credibility of news media depends on their publishing facts not lies. And yet it is accepted as a necessity—even a sacrosanct right—that journalists can selectively rely on anonymous sources as well, particularly when access or information could not be provided without it.

Still journalists do on occasion commit acts similar to what Anonymous is also faulted for: publicizing the names of sensitive individuals and thus putting them in harm's way—doxing. This tactic (understandably) is one of Anonymous's most controversial and at times deeply unsavory practices. As my book has explored, doxing often ruffles the feathers of others within Anonymous, particularly when someone releases names of innocent bystanders or incorrectly attributes an action. This happened with OpFerguson when an Anonymous Twitter account, TheAnonMessage, released the name and photos of a police officer in the mistaken belief that he was responsible for gunning down Michael Brown.

The fact that we know Anonymous is fallible is valuable in itself. They do not claim objectivity

I was watching in real time on IRC when TheAnonMessage was gearing up to release the name of the police officer. It was early in the morning and most members of the operation not around or idling. Usually doxing operations occur privately and this was out of character because TheAnonMessage was acting whimsically without consulting the core team, which normally happens behind closed doors in private channels. Once he went public with the name—and it was clear that he got it wrong—almost every other member of the operation became infuriated and lambasted the Anon in question. One of his most vocal critics was Crypt0nymous, a respected video/media maker in Anonymous, who went on a tirade against @TheAnonMessage on Twitter. He posted dozens of messages about his shoddy and irresponsible work that, according to Crypt0nymous, was motivated by a desire for personal glory and fame.

When reputable newspapers, like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, publish fibs or stories with scanty evidence the consequences can be far more negative than when an entity like Anonymous spreads them; those papers are seen as vehicles of objectivity and truth. Their reputations tend to be rock-solid and are hard to puncture. Anonymous's claims, on the other hand, are often treated, even by supporters, with some degree of skepticism.

The fact that we know Anonymous is fallible is valuable in itself. They do not claim objectivity. They do not claim to be fair and balanced, but merely to be activists doing their best (or doing their best to be mischievous). Thus their failures are immediately prevented from doing too much harm because no one expects them to be 100 percent correct all the time in the first place, unlike a reputable agency like the New York Times.

Still, comparisons between Anonymous and journalism can only go so far. The scope of activity engaged in by Anonymous, an action-oriented political movement, is far greater than that of news media, mandated only to disseminate information.

As Anonymous continues to makes demands of the state, seeks to stamp out corruption, and connects with other activists to provide aid for political fights small and large, it is at work decolonizing deep-seated habits of subjectivity: it dares to work toward a collective good without the need for personal recognition and furthering a personal brand. Many of its participants are after all capable, law-abiding citizens who could, if they chose, seek some measure of personal, public glory in return for their contributions. Instead, they insist on the "right to opacity," as formulated by Edouard Glissant.

Masking, so often thought of only in negative terms—as shirking responsibility or hiding—can also enable a positive, constructive ethics of interacting and of being-in-the-world that runs counter to state, corporate, and colonial interests. Indeed this right embodies a series of defiant, principled refusals; a refusal to allow the state to track its citizens; a refusal to allow corporations to convert personal communications into profit or manipulate their personal desires; a refusal to capitalize off each other's labor; a refusal, in essence, to prevent a powerful idea—that we are and can be anonymous—from withering away.

You can read the entirety of Coleman's new chapter here.