What is Anonymous? It is not pro-privacy.
A drumbeat of hacktivism in the past year or so by shadowy groups, including one called Anonymous, has culminated in a number of recent breach-and-release attacks on servers holding personal information. Some individuals speaking for — or at least of — Anonymous describe the group as pro-privacy, but that is hard to swallow.
The latest round of incidents was spurred by the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit system’s ill-considered decision to cut cell phone service to subway stations in an effort to disrupt public protests. Its website was defaced and information on some customers posted publicly. Those actions were followed by a similar attack against the website of the BART Police Officers Association.
A frequent tweeter for the group, using the Twitter name @AnonyOps, disavowed the release of personal information, calling it “grossly irresponsible.”
“I'd like to believe that whoever did it THOUGHT they were doing Anonymous a service,” he or she wrote in an online interview with SF Weekly. “But they were wrong. Anonymous is pro-privacy.”
That claim is not supported by the group’s own statements of purpose.
So what and who is Anonymous? What does it stand for?
It is easier to say what it is not. “Anonymous isn’t unanimous,” AnonyOps wrote in an Aug. 17 posting. Another writer, posting as Thisisanonymous, wrote, “Anonymous is not an organization; that requires hierarchy, leadership and — most importantly — organization.”
As for what Anonymous stands for, it is the idea that “the everyman can stand strong in the face of oppression, that governments and corporations are accountable for their lies, that there is strength and solidarity in numbers,” Thisisanonymous wrote.
AnonyOps claims that Anonymous has done a lot of good. “It has helped with other groups in providing aid to people on the ground in countries where ‘democracy’ is a bad word.”
The ideals are laudable, but the claims of doing good are impossible to verify if the organization does not exist. That is the great weakness of Anonymous. If the group has no membership, no one can be excluded. Anyone doing anything for any reason is just as entitled as anyone else to do it under the name Anonymous, and nobody can legitimately object. Anonymous would like to hold governments and corporations accountable but offers no accountability itself.
Anonymous posters routinely complain that they are misunderstood and misrepresented by the news media. “A destructive minority is getting a majority of the press, while those of us who toil in the shadow doing good work for people at home and abroad go unthanked,” AnonyOps wrote.
The complaint falls flat. If Anonymous is nonexclusive and all-inclusive, then the grossly irresponsible act of publishing the personal information of BART customers is just as much a part of Anonymous as any undocumented work that has been done in support of demonstrators in repressive countries.
That’s the problem with freedom: Without limits, it quickly destroys itself. Then it is no more free than the most rigid hierarchy of a totalitarian regime. As AnonyOps points out, the destructive minority gets the attention, and in the end, it also gets to call the shots, pushing everyone else into the shadows.
Anonymous can’t be pro-privacy unless it is willing to exclude those who are anti-privacy. And it can’t do that until it is willing to set standards of behavior and hold itself and its members accountable for what they do.