Even by the standards of a conference of hackers, where the mohawked and kilted flaunted their weirdness like high-rollers flaunting their worth, the scene that unfolded on Saturday evening was strange. That evening, members of the hacker network Anonymous got into a rowdy argument with a pair of security researchers who said they'd infiltrated the group.
It was one of the livelier moments of DefCon, a conference where 10,000 hackers had descended upon Las Vegas for a weekend of talks, workshops and contests.
For the average citizen, who looks upon the hacker world in roughly the same way that early humans looked upon the sea, the story of what happened offers a rare flicker of insight into the social dynamics of one of the world's most prominent hacking alliances.
One of the researchers was Jennifer Emick, who goes by handle Ashera. A 39-year-old mother of four who recently moved from California to the Midwest (she's reluctant to reveal where exactly she lives for reasons that will soon become clear), Emick had once been an enthusiastic participant in Anonymous activities. Back in 2008, when members of the incipient movement launched a protest against the Church of Scientology, she showed up regularly to the weekly picket line that formed outside of their San Francisco headquarters.
But in May of last year, a rift opened up within Anonymous, and Emick says she got swept up in a feud between two cliques. Members of the opposing clique harassed her, calling her house at all hours, impersonating her on the Internet and leaving racist comments under her name on various websites. She largely blamed the attacks on Gregg Housh, an early Anonymous member who often acted in the capacity of a spokesperson and now describes himself as an "observer" of the group.
Housh, for his part, says that Emick brought the attacks upon herself by doing similar things to others, but he denies that he took part in them.
Regardless of who did what to whom, Emick watched from the sidelines over next few months as hackers operating under the aegis of Anonymous carried out digital "protests" against increasingly formidable foes, temporarily paralyzing into the websites of PayPal and Sony, for example.
She questioned the morality of these attacks, with some exceptions, and in February, started snooping around the chat rooms and websites where Anonymous members convened, collecting information in the hopes of exposing their identities.
She found an ally in Jin Soo Byun, a 27-year-old retired Air Force cryptologist who, like Emick, had joined Anonymous to protest Scientology. At the time, he said, he was recovering from the motorcycle injury that had ended his military career. He'd sustained serious brain damage and lost some of his memory, and Anonymous was his way of "coping," he said.
It was also around that time that he began to make a name for himself as Mudsplatter, a "social engineer" who made the rounds of security conferences alerting corporations to their security problems by giving presentations on how he'd broken into their buildings.
Byun says that he decided to help Emick take down Anonymous after learning that Anonymous members were planning to attack the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va., where Bradley Manning, an alleged source of Wikileaks, was being held.
He knew that Anons, as members of Anonymous call themselves, were angry about reports that Manning had been subjected to rough treatment, but says he was more concerned about the welfare of the other Marines on the base, so he and Emick adopted fake personas and began introducing themselves to people in Anonymous chat rooms. "We talked to them, and they would spew and spew information," he said, "especially if you said you were an elite hacker and you could show them a little bit of code or something to prove that you knew what you're talking about."
At the end of March, they released a list of over 80 names -- mostly of people who didn't wield much power in the group. Nevertheless, the FBI got in touch with them, according to Emick, and Emick and Byun began sharing information with the agency. (Housh disputes the legitimacy of the list, saying most of the names were wrong.)
And that's where the story leaves off, more or less, until 7pm on Saturday evening, when Emick and Byun took the stage in a crowded Las Vegas conference room to talk about how and why they'd gone after Anonymous. According to Emick, the talk was meant to serve as a warning to would-be Anonymous members: "Don't make the mistake of thinking people can't figure out who you are."
Of course, it also figured to serve as good publicity for Backtrace Security, which is what Emick and Byun called the partnership they'd formed.
Emick and Byun had barely begun speaking, however, when a group of hecklers in the back of the room started making noise. One of them was wearing the grinning mask that has become the unofficial emblem of Anonymous. Sitting among them was Gregg Housh, Emick's rival.
Housh says that he has been in Anonymous since the beginning; in the story he tells, he was part of a kernel of just five or six people who met each other in 4chan, a hangout for hackers and others on the Internet, and first came up with the idea of protesting the Church of Scientology.
Soon after he helped start the movement, his name got out, and partly because he was no longer anonymous, he says, he fell into the role of a sort of spokesperson. But his role is a source of controversy within the group, and he goes out of his way to stress that he speaks only for himself, not for Anonymous as a whole.
As Emick spoke, the heckling got louder and more aggressive. Someone shouted, "Would you please do something right for once in your life?" Byun responded by repeatedly grabbing the microphone and unleashing profanity-laced disses. (He said his confrontational style was inspired by the Wu-Tang Clan.)
If anyone in the audience had been holding out hope for a serious conversation on the benefits and dangers of online anonymity, now would have been the time to leave. The talk quickly devolved into a something resembling a backyard wrestling match or a frat party. There were cries of the venerable spring-break refrain "Show us your tits!" An Anonymous member climbed onto the stage and engaged Emick and Byun in a farcical debate. Sitting two seats over from him was a prankster in a huge, puffy bear mask (the Pedobear, for those familiar with the "meme" subculture of 4chan).
After the DefCon staff finally called an end to the session, each side claimed victory.
"They said nothing of value," Housh said of Emick and Byun, "and some of that was because the Anons sat there making too much noise."
Emick felt that the Anonymous members had revealed themselves to be infantile bullies, and she wondered whether by showing their faces they'd inadvertently helped the FBI build a case against them.
As the crowd filed out of the conference room, yet another strange spectacle presented itself: Housh and Byun could be seen walking side-by-side, chatting about which parties they planned to attend that night. It was as if they were soldiers for warring countries who had run into each other in no-man's land and were affably shooting the breeze before returning to their opposite trenches.
Later, Byun said he had just been toying with Housh -- "social engineering" him, as he put it. "I didn't really want to hang out with him," he said.
Housh offered a contrasting explanation, one that sheds a little light, perhaps, on his personality, if not on Anonymous as a whole.
"I love conversing with people who hate me," he said. "That kind of debate and argument is actually invigorating to me. I enjoy it."