Friday, January 28, 2011

Taking Anonymous Seriously: The State Strikes Back

I have written about the emergence  of new and potentially significant governance collectives that have arisen out of a century of mass democratic politics and the ideology that supports it, especially in the West.  Larry Catá Backer,  "Anonymous": Organizing Collective Action and Coercive Power Beyond the State, Law at the End of the Day,  January 4, 2011.  Anonymous, I have suggested, at least tentatively, stands at the forefront of an emerging wave of functional internationalism that combines "transformative power of globalization when combined with the political culture of mass democracy and the politics of mass mobilization framed around ideology."  Id. 

I have been told that  this approach might tend towards analytic hysteria, that Anonymous either does not exist, is hardly coherent enough to merit serious attention, or is just another anarchist group with no connection to governance.  Others suggest that unlike the state, Anonymous is an abstraction with no center and no institutional base, both necessary for the construction of a governance unit.  Thus reduced, they can be consigned to the dustbin category--vigilante group--and thus categorized, marginalized.  Ryan Singel,Vigilantes Take Offensive in WikiLeaks Censorship Battle, Threat Level, Privacy, Crime and Security Online, Wired, Dec. 8, 2010 ("Internet vigilantes stepped up attacks in support of WikiLeaks on Wednesday, downing Visa’s web site in a widening protest against a handful of companies that banned the secret-spilling site after it began publishing hundreds of secret U.S. diplomatic cables. The outages, organized by the group Anonymous under the banner “Operation Payback,” have taken the battle between WikiLeaks supporters and opponents over web censorship to the streets, so to speak, sparking a series of tit-for-tat retaliations that appeared to be growing at the time this article was posted").

 From Ryan Singel, U.K. Police Arrest Five Men in Wikileaks/Anonymous Payback Attacks, Threat Level Privacy, Crime and Security Online, Wired, Jan. 27, 2011.

Whatever the merits of these reactions, I note that while academics and analysts might dismiss Anonymous, the state has not.    
U.K. police arrested five men in dawn raids Thursday morning, alleging they were part of the Anonymous attacks on the websites of Visa, Mastercard and Paypal, which were conducted to show displeasure with the financial services companies that cut off donations to Wikileaks, according to the BBC.
Three of those arrested were minors, while two men aged 20 and 26, were also arrested. There’s no indication at present that those arrested were ringleaders in the loosely organized attacks in December. Previously, Dutch police arrested two teens for their role in the attacks.
In the attacks on the financial service companies, thousands downloaded a tool called LOIC — or Low Orbit Ion Cannon — that joined their computer to the group attack on the target of the moment. However, the tool did nothing to hide a user’s IP address, making it possible for the target website to hand it’s server logs over to the authorities to track users down via their IP addresses.  Ryan Singel, U.K. Police Arrest Five Men in Wikileaks/Anonymous Payback Attacks, Threat LevelPrivacy, Crime and Security Online, Wired, Jan. 27, 2011.
But this action was not merely a routine police action against "vigilantes" undertaken in the ordinary course of a state's operations against what it characterizes as it criminal element.

Today's arrests were coordinated by the Metropolitan police working in conjunction with other UK forces and international agencies.
"They are part of an ongoing [Metropolitan police] investigation into Anonymous which began last year following criminal allegations of DDoS [distributed denial of service] attacks by the group against several companies," Scotland Yard said.
"This investigation is being carried out in conjunction with international law enforcement agencies in Europe and the US."  Josh Halliday, Police arrest five over Anonymous WikiLeaks attacks, Guardian U.K., Jan. 27, 2011. 
What is emerging is a sense of both urgency and threat, a sense emerging from the security organs of states and focused on what they appear to increasingly view as a collective that is well organized and well disciplined enough to target opponents at will, not by direct action, but by mobilizing mass action of like-minded individuals who join together for collective action.  Even worse, the mobilization of the Anonymous collective appears most effective among the demographic group that state's expend the greatest effort to manage and control.  Many of those subject to police action were minors. "Three teenagers, aged 15, 16 and 19, were arrested in a series of coordinated raids at 7am along with two men aged 20 and 26. All five are being held in custody at local police stations."  Id.  This is a crucial demographic for mobilization with potential political effect.  That was made clear not in Europe, but in the mass mobilization for what might be revolutionary action in Egypt.  See, Young Egyptians mount unusual challenge to Mubarak, Los Angeles Times, Jan. 27, 2011 ("A Facebook-fueled youth movement has called for more protest, challenging a government that says it won't tolerate it. Security forces have blocked activists' Twitter accounts but not their anger. . . . "There is a generational gap in Egypt," Maher said, watching waiters and the twentysomething men and women likely to join him in the protests. "The opposition is looking to preserve themselves and their parties. They've become too hesitant. But young activists are fired up, and they have no allegiances to anything but change."").

From Young Egyptians mount unusual challenge to Mubarak, Los Angeles Times, Jan. 27, 2011.

This is more ambiguously evidenced in the connection between Anonymous and the current mass mobilization efforts in Tunisia, Yemen,  and Egypt.  "In recent weeks the group has turned its attention to targets in Tunisia and Egypt, attacking official sites in both countries in support of anti-government protests."  Five arrested over 'Anonymous' web attacks, BBC News Online, Jan. 27, 2011.
When it comes to Anonymous’ actions against the Tunisian government there have been a few interesting developments. Operation: Tunisia is still growing, as the number of people taking part has nearly doubled since our last update.
The Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks continue, but they hit a bit of a snag when the Tunisian government null-routed foreign Internet traffic to their primary TLD, In response to the traffic blocks, Anonymous shifted to other targets including
When it was discovered that the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI) was injecting JavaScript into web forms, using it to harvest usernames and passwords, Anonymous reacted by releasing a browser add-on that strips the added JavaScript code. The Greasemonkey script allows Tunisian surfers to access Blogger, Facebook, Gmail, Yahoo, and Twitter without exposing their login details. Our coverage on ATI’s actions is here.
While the JavaScript filter is a step in the right direction, there are other ways that ATI can track Internet users. Due to this, Anonymous has added to their bag of tricks. While the DDoS attacks and website defacements are still the choice for some of those participating in Operation: Tunisia, others are championing the cause of protection.
In an effort to support a restriction-free Internet in Tunisia, members of Anonymous have gathered to promote links to what they’re calling a care package for Tunisian protestors. In it, they have included how-to guides for a number of things including homemade gas masks. In addition, they are circulating information on TOR usage, links to Tunisian proxies, instructions for LiveCD usage, and a book titled Bypassing Internet Censorship. (From Steve Ragan, Anonymous offers support to Tunisian protestors (Update 2), Security, Jan. 10,2011).

A similar set of tactics has been suggested in aid of Egyptian street protests designed to bring about the fall of its current government.  "The online group of hactivists known as "Anonymous" expressed their support for protesters in Egypt Wednesday by calling for cyber attacks on websites run by the Egyptian government." David Edwards, ‘Anonymous’ calls for attacks on Egyptian government websites, The Raw Story, Jan. 26, 2011.  One does not hear condemnation of these actions, nor is there likely the sort of police investigation that was used to protect the operations of large Western multinationals that were the targets of the Wikileaks counterstrike.  This is the case even in the face of Western ambivalence about democracy movements in Muslim majority states, a concern that is not altogether irrational given the recent history of mass movements in the region.  See Marc Lynch, Where are the democracy promoters on Tunisia?, Foreign Policy, Jan. 27, 2011.  Vikash Yadav connected the protest movements, mass mobilization and Anonymous quite well noting:  "But what we are seeing is that outside actors are increasingly willing to try to help counterstrike when authoritarian states crackdown on Internet based networking technologies. In addition, Twitter, Facebook, Google, and the US government are not the only players in the game. Non-corporate/non-state networks like "Anonymous" may also become relevant actors willing to "backstop" social networking technologies (through mirror sites) and challenge the ability of repressive states to use the Internet in future dramas of global politics."  Vikash Yadav, Anonymous attacks Tunisian Government Websites, The Duck of Minerva, Jan. 10, 2011.

Moreover, Anonymous is not without its allies, organs constituted and operating within the network of organizations recognized within the transnational  state dominated sphere.   One is the Pirate Party ( a loose confederation of parties organized by state).  "The Pirate Party UK is a political organisation registered with the electoral commission. It campaigns for significant reform to copyright and patent law, protection for personal privacy and government transparency, and greater freedoms of speech and communication."  It issued a statement reacting to the arrests.
In a statement released today, the Pirateers voiced their concerns over the role the companies had played in attempting to silence WikiLeaks' attempt to unmask the US government's diplomatic duplicity:
"Many believe that the revelations made by WikiLeaks unveil the questionable behaviour of elected representatives and therefore that it is in the public interest for this information to be revealed," the swashbuckling file sharers stated, adding: "Actions by certain companies to block services for or donations to WikiLeaks are seen as forms of censorship that, while not directly caused by national governments are seen to be supported or encouraged by them."
"In the face of governmental and corporate attacks against WikiLeaks," the pirates continued, "individuals around the world have tried to fight back in the only way they feel available to them under the label 'Anonymous'."
Offering a muted defence of Anonymous' direct action, the Pirate Party's statement continued:
"While the Party will never condone any illegal actions, it can understand the frustration felt by many who feel powerless in the face of multinational corporations and Governments unwilling to step in. (From   Pirate Party slams police over Anonymous arrests Warns of WikiLeaks war, Jan. 27, 2011; see also Pirate Party Statement Concerning "Anonymous" Arrests, Jan. 27, 2011).
Elements of this organization had attempted to position themselves as a mediating organ of sorts in the initial action that eventually resulted in the Anonymous arrests in the U.K.  See Trent Nouveau, Pirate Party asks Anonymous to halt DDoS attacks, TG Daily, Nov. 21, 2010.  But the Pirate Party also condemned state attacks on the Wikileaks organization.  "In a joint declaration with other Pirate Parties, today the Pirate Party of the United Kingdom strongly condemns any attacks on Wikileaks infrastructure and more so any attacks on Wikileaks staff." Pirate Parties Condemn Violence Against Wikileaks' Staff, Pirate Party UK, Dec. 30, 2010 (including the Piratenpartei Österreichs, Parti Pirate français, Piratenpartei Deutschland,  Partito Pirata Italiano, Piratepartei Lëtzebuerg, Pirate Party of Switzerland, Pirate Party of the United Kingdom, and the Pirate Party of Russia).  The Party also serves as a conventional mouthpiece for political action.  See, e.g., Pirate Parties condemn Tunisia's unjust arrest of Pirate Party Members and Free Speech Activists, Pirate Party UK, Jan. 7, 2011.

And the Pirate Party serves as a voice for Anonymous interests in the context of political mass democratic mobilization with which Anonymous is sometimes associated.   Yet it is important to remember that, when it suits them, states also find its useful to tolerate Anonymous, mostly by ignoring them and supporting the fruits of their activity.   See, e.g., UPDATE 2-U.S. worried by Tunisia riots, Internet freedoms, Reuters, Jan. 7, 2011 ("Another U.S. official, also speaking on background, said both the government and activists appeared to be targeting the Internet. "We've received some information from Facebook that helped us understand what was happening. This is a case of hacking into private accounts, stealing passwords and being able effectively to curb individuals' access to social media," the official said. "In a variety of ways there's activities on a number of sides, but clearly the government has taken some specific actions that are of concern to us."").  In the context of the Egyptian demonstrations, American White House Presidential Spokesman Robert Gibbs stated:  "The security personnel in Egypt need to refrain from violence, the government needs to turn the Internet and social networking sites back on," Joby Warrick and Perry Bacon Jr.,  Obama urges Egypt to heed protests, pursue reforms,  The Washington Post, Jan. 28, 2011.
And thus, the question reduces itself to two related issues.  The first is dominance and control.  States are content enough to permit the use of technologically centered mass mobilizations if it furthers either own policy.  The template was set in Iran in 2009.  Evgeny Morozov, Iran Elections:  A Twitter Revolution?, The Washington Post, June 17, 2009 ("The State Department asked social-networking site Twitter to delay scheduled maintenance earlier this week to avoid disrupting communications among tech-savvy Iranian citizens as they took to the streets to protest Friday's reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.").  But states will move decisively against entities or movements that threaten their own resources or economic entities on which their economies are dependent.  States prefer to manage mass mobilization, and they prefer to contain democratic mass politics within the frameworks of their political parties.  Anonymous represents a threat by its autonomy by organizing mass movements in the absence of the state. 
While the outcome of the unrest in Egypt could have enormous implications for regional security, longtime Middle Eastern analysts said there was little the administration can do to directly affect events.
"What strikes me is how irrelevant we have become," said Robert Grenier, a retired CIA officer who served in the region for 27 years and now is chairman of ERG Partners, a financial and strategic advisory firm. "The people behind the current protests in Tunisia and Egypt certainly don't look to the United States for any kind of support, moral or otherwise." (From Joby Warrick and Perry Bacon Jr.,  Obama urges Egypt to heed protests, pursue reforms,  The Washington Post, Jan. 28, 2011.)
Unless it can be subordinated to the framework of the state-law system, it remains a threat, even if it does not aspire to assert the same authority as that traditionally exercised by the state. Anonymous is demonstrating that its ability to avoid dominance can overcome even blockages of the technologies that helped bring it to life.  "But with most of the Internet down in Egypt, the folks at Anonymous are apparently resorting to a positively prehistoric technology: fax machines.Members of the group are organizing to fax copies of the Egypt-related cables that WikiLeaks released today to schools in Egypt. The hope apparently is that if they can get the faxes into the hands of students, students will distribute them to other protesters. "  E.B. Boyd, Anonymous Goes Old-School, Attacks Egypt With Faxes, Fast Company, Jan. 28, 2011.

The second is control of ideological triggers.  As a traditional source of secular normative values, the law-state assumes the role of controller of the ideological framework within which political judgments are made.   An important function of the state apparatus is the protection of the ideology that serves as the foundation of the political system that sustains it.  That is as true in Egypt as in the United States and China.  Anonymous and related organizations threaten the control and management of ideological triggers by the state.  The increased difficulty of states in the control and management of ideology as the basis for mass mobilization has become apparent in the recent Egyptian popular unrest.
There have been signs for years that ideology is less effective in recruiting and mobilizing citizens. This is because party and non-party forces using ideological rhetoric have failed to realize socioeconomic change and true political reform. Also, this week’s protests were organized by youth movements and organizations who were able to recruit in the virtual world.   Amr Hamzawy, EGYPT: Day of anger suggests a new protest scene driven by youth, free of ideology, Los Angeles Times, Jan. 28, 2011.

If an organization other than the state can control mobilization of large parts of a population it can affect not only the issue that is the subject of the mobilization but can assume a role as an important political player in other areas.  That makes them potentially a threat to the state and its elites. And in Tunisia and Egypt also a threat to that other great source of political ideology--organized religion. Consider a recent Anonymous Release on that point, OPERATION EGYPT - ANONYMOUS PRESS RELEASE - 26/01/2011. That is a lesson from out of the mobilizations in Egypt and Tunisia--not about the power of Anonymous to manage political change in states but of the power of Anonymous to invoke ideology to contribute to a mass mobilization that then takes on a life of its own and can threaten the state apparatus. And mass mobilization is a toll that can be invoked by anyone--even very young people. That is possibly the most unnerving lesson for states.  Their educational systems, and their adherence to ideologies of mass movements and democratic activism  can now be detached from the state and sometimes invoked against it or other non-state actors, by people or groups acting independently.  The arrests thus remind us that while most people do not yet Anonymous seriously, states do.  And they are now expending substantial resources to attempt to manage Anonymous.

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