Get used to hacktivism, because we're stick with it – but whether it fits the media image of “Anonymous”, or how long Anonymous as it first emerged will continue, is a different question. That's the message from Forbes' Parmy Olsen, author of We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of Anonymous, LulzSec and the Global Cyber Insurgency, speaking to AusCERT 2013.
Beyond its early prankster and vigilantism history, Olsen said, a key question that needs to be answered to understand Anonymous in particular and hacktivism in general is “why are people so keen to risk arrest to take part?”
Olsen uses jailed LulzSec participants as her examples of four motivations she has identified for participating in hacktivism and Anonymous: Anonymous-as-a-stage (Jake Davis, Topiary, performing in front of an audience); activism along with followers and notoriety (Hector Monsegur, Sabu); opportunities to hack (Ryan Ackroyd, Kayla); as well as a need for friendship and a simple desire to troll.
How does this, then, relate to the future of hacktivism in the years since the heyday in which thousands of individuals would take part in IRC chats planning attacks, to an apparently much smaller number of people recruiting botnets rather than individuals?
“You could argue that Anonymous is slowly dying out, partly because the culture of 4chan is changing,” Olsen said. She related a concern by Christopher Poole, founder of 4chan, that in a handful of years it's become “much harder to galvanise people” into activist participation.
That's also changing the nature of Anonymous campaigns, Olsen believes, with the statements attributed to Anonymous taking a more overtly political activist stance, and with online campaigns seeing lower participation.
“While the act of hacking has become easier,” she said, “the act of amassing large crowds of people is getting a lot harder to do.” It's far easier to recruit a botnet than thousands of individuals – and, she said, denial-of-service seems to have shed some of the cachet it had in earlier extended Anonymous campaigns.
Today's smaller Anonymous, Olsen claimed, seems to be more effective at projecting a public image of being larger than it is, helped by a media seeking a group that fits its narrative – and given further credibility by prosecutors exaggerating their language for courtrooms and journalists.
“The Anonymous I have observed doesn't fit an image of dangerous organised criminals.”
Rather, she said, it looks more like radical fringes of other movements that have preceded it in history – and just as such movements have changed society in their wake, so might have Anonymous.
Its underlying theme of complete Internet freedom, Olsen said, seems to have a created a world in which people are less concerned about at least some aspects of their privacy – making Anonymous less of a threat.