BY: Claire Greilich
In 2003, teenager Christopher Poole founded the image-sharing website 4chan. 4chan consisted of different message boards that spanned a wide variety of topics: cooking, coding advice, dating advice, anime, fashion, animals, etc. Any given modern-day meme most likely traces its roots from 4chan, including the internet famous Lolcats.
One particular message board served as the breeding grounds for what would later become the hacking collective Anonymous: /b/ board or “Random.” /b/ board was different from the other message boards on 4chan as it cultivated an “anything goes” environment. With the exception of child pornography, nothing was off limits. Taboo depictions of sex and violence were commonplace. Users often replied to threads with misogynistic, racist, and homophobic attitudes and language. This juxtaposition between the cutesy, the weird, and the downright disturbing can be explained with one word: lulz.
Lulz can be achieved through the means of humiliation, schadenfreude, and belittlement; anything to get a laugh out of someone. Members of Anonymous would send one another black faxes, prank phone call complete strangers, or order their enemy an unpaid escort.
January 2008 saw Anonymous’ first foray into activists aims as the Church of Scientology threatened to remove a leaked video of actor Tom Cruise pledging his support of scientology doctrines from the internet. Anonymous mobilized on IRC (internet relay chat) channels, a forum that facilitated text conversation, and decided to protest the attack on their lulz and an attack that perpetuated internet censorship.
After Project Chanology, Anonymous was inspired to target more institutions they perceived to be corrupt or hindering the free flow of information. I have provided a chart that summarizes major operations between 2010-2011. In recent years, however, the hacking collective has been on the decline. Reports from security giant McAfee and the State Department confirm this sentiment, alleging the group is no threat to critical infrastructure. Why?
1. Their methods of attack are inferior, especially with advances in law enforcement, corporate, and individual cybersecurity knowledge. DDoS attacks have little effect on large payment networks and site defacement is a relatively quick fix.
2. Media interest has dwindled. Anonymous relied on news outlets to propagate their manifestos and cover their operations.
3. Attack methods have become predictable and have not evolved.
4. After former Anonymous member Hector X. Monsegur was arrested by the FBI, he worked for them as an informant, leading to a string of arrests within the group. Anons were left paranoid and distrusting of fellow members.
5. There have been too many chaotic and unclear operations that leave users confused. In 2015, the group declared war on Trump in a video released from their official YouTube channel. They later retracted their decision on the same social media platform.
What will the future of hacktivism look like?
Well, it’s not going anywhere. McAfee predicts that self-organized patriot groups will flourish with advancement and sophistication of attack methods. Hacktivist groups will have greater leadership, they will be state-associated, and operations will be carried out with greater complexity and skill.
This presentation by Claire Greilich was her research project while interning at the EastWest Institute in the Global Cooperation in Cyberspace Initiative Program in the fall of 2016. Claire is currently pursuing a master’s degree in International Affairs with a concentration in International Security at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in New York City. Her career background consists of considerable, global teaching experience. In 2015, she completed a Fulbright Teaching Assistantship in Berlin, Germany, where she also volunteered as a German and English instructor to local refugees. Claire taught 1st grade Math and 3rd grade English at a bi-lingual, British curriculum school in Hua Hin, Thailand. She graduated cum laude from Temple University with a bachelor’s degree in German Language and Literature. Connect with Claire on LinkedIn.