What is Anonymous

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There was an AP story yesterday (see, for example, the version on MSNBC)  that said that 25 suspected members of the group Anonymous had been arrested in Europe and South America.  The story noted that they were hackers, but what does that really mean?

A simple definition of a hacker is one who searches for weaknesses in computer programs and, once found, exploiting the weakness in the program.  Some hackers are nothing more than talented computer students who want to learn more about their craft and so they try to outsmart the designers of the software.  Others are people acting on a challenge from one’s peers.  Sometimes members of these two groups become “white hat” hackers who try to break into systems for the purpose of making those systems stronger.  Still others use hacking as a way of gaining access to financial accounts or to information that can be used to gain a profit.  However, the hackers associated with Anonymous are those who break into computer systems to make a political statement and/or to protest.

The “members” of Anonymous are part of a loosely affiliated and quite decentralized online community.  Anonymous has no leader or controlling party and relies on the collective power of its individual participants acting in such a way that the net effect benefits the group.  They communicate through electronic bulletin boards and image boards about injustices they perceive to exist in the world.  They then use hacking as a kind of activism to protest those injustices.  Early in their existence (circa 2008), these attacks were generally made against the motion picture and recording industries to protest anti-digital piracy campaigns by these industries.  Over the years, however, the members of Anonymous have broadened the issues about which they protest.

For example, members of Anonymous launched a protest against the Church of Scientology in response to its attempts to remove material from an interview with Tom Cruise ab0ut Scientology in 2008.  Recently Anonymous protested the proposed SOPA act.  Anonymous has also launched cyberattacks against Visa, MasterCard and PayPal as a protest against companies opposing Wikileaks.  The arrests cited by AP yesterday were for planning coordinated cyberattacks against institutions including Colombia’s defense ministry and presidential websites, Chile’s Endesa electricity company and national library.

Protests can take on a variety of forms.  Members of Anonymous might actually break into a system and steal data.  Or, they might launch Denial of Service attacks, which overload servers with too many users so that the servers cannot handle its regular users.

Why is it so hard to stop these hackers?  First, the members of Anonymous are located worldwide and are only loosely affiliated.  As said earlier, members might not know the identity of other members, so finding one might not lead you to another.  Second, the members use their knowledge of computers and computer networks to hide their tracks when they take action.  A command sent from London might be set up so that it appears to come from Sydney.

What does all of this mean to you, the web surfer?  It might just be an inconvenience.  Denial of Service attacks overwhelm servers so people like you cannot use them to check their accounts, make their purchases or find out information.  Or, it might mean that data about you is stolen  and released to others who might want to steal money or identity from you.  At the very least, it means that law enforcement is spending its time fighting this problem when it could be solving other crimes.

What are SOPA and PIPA? Where is Wikipedia and Why Does Google have a Black Logo??

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Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.org) has become a standard source for checking facts, geography, spelling and more.  It has taken the status that Encyclopedia Britannica had when I was a child because it has the similar accuracy level to EB.  We will talk more about it another day.  If you have not used Wikipedia, you should look at it — but not on January 18 because on that day, the English version of the site is going “dark” or offline. The reason for going offline is to protest SOPA and PIPA.  They are not the only site going offline on that date — a number of sources that many of us use regularly are involved in the protest.  Even Google, which continues to be online, has a black logo in support of the protest.

So, what are SOPA and PIPA and why does Wikipedia care?  These stand for the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the PROTECTIP Act (PIPA), a bill  in the U.S. Senate, respectively.  In an open letter, the Wikipedia Board said, “It is the opinion of the English Wikipedia community that both of these bills, if passed, would be devastating to the free and open web. ”  Those are pretty strong words, so we should look at what they mean!

First, what is the goal of the legislation?  The intended goal of the legislation was to protect the intellectual property rights of content providers.  In particular, it was pushed by movie, television and recording executives who want to protect their own rights to control how movies, television programs and songs.  They would like to reap the profits from their investments, and block others from sharing them for free.  We all recognize that there are huge pirating groups overseas that are selling these products illegally, and we also recognize that is a problem.

However, the legislation is comparable to trying to hit a fly with a telephone book.    First, you are unlikely to actually hit the fly with something as large and unwieldy as a telephone book.  Second, even if you hit the fly, you are likely to do much more damage when hitting the telephone book to the surface.  These laws are unlikely to actually stop the piracy for a variety of reasons and they introduce a number of provisions that would have other consequences.  Mashable.com stated the concern most succinctly:

… the really scary thing here is that there isn’t any qualification that the site be solely for the purpose of theft, only that it facilitate it. Since copyright violation is ridiculously easy, any site with a comment box or picture upload form is potentially infringing. Furthermore, DMCA Safe Harbor provisions are no defense. You, as a site operator, become liable for copyright infringement committed by your users, even if you comply with DMCA takedown requests.

They proponents claim that the bills will not affect first amendment rights because they are focused on organizations outside of the U.S.  In this day, do you really know which websites are owned by organizations in the U.S. or those outside of the U.S.?  The claim is that if the URL ends in a .com or .org, it is in the U.S. and would not be affected by this law.  That means that all a foreign company has to do is to buy a .com or .org address and they are protected?   But, what if an American company also has sites outside of the U.S.?  Amazon.com, for example, also has Amazon.com.uk and Amazon.de.  Would they be affected?

Second, the language in the bills is quite broad and could easily be misapplied.  If an Attorney General chooses to take action against a site, it is claimed, he or she must get a court order.  The court order would require that:

  • Internet service providers block your access to the site (section 102(c)(2)(A)(i)) within five days;
  • Search engines (such as Google) remove all references to the offending sites from their indexes (section 102(c)(2)(B));
  • Ad providers stop providing ad service to the site; and
  • Payment providers (including credit cards) terminate service to the site.

In other words, the Attorney General, with a court order, has the ability to censor a site without a trial or any process that allows the site to defend itself.  There is no due process of justice.  This is a very slippery slope that, once in place, is easy to abuse.  We criticize countries such as China for their censorship of the Internet.  Why would the U.S. make it easy for us to get in the same position?

Third, and perhaps most scary, is a provision that encourages ISPs to block content that seems to be providing inappropriate materials.  WOW!  So YOU might not be able to see a site because someone at your ISP thinks that site might be breaking the law.  There is no trial, no evidence and no legal recourse!  So much for our rights!

There are many people who have written more eloquently on this than have I.  If you are not convinced, I suggest you consider reading:

There are many many other articles out there that are informative and worth reading. However, you may need to wait until Thursday to read any of them.