Here's the thing about the secret international brotherhood of Internet bandits called Anonymous: It's kind of hard to get an interview with them. When you offer revolutionary groups a chance to say their piece to a mass audience, they generally get back to you within two to three hours, but Anonymous isn't a group.
Or that's what they'd say, anyway, if you could get them to talk. Most of the time they don't talk, except in 1980s robot voices. But more on that later.
There's been a lot of curiosity about Anonymous lately, and fortunately for the inquiring journalist, lots of non-anonymous people have been talking about them. The most recent flurry of chatter began on Friday, when police in Spain said they'd hunted down three members of the group (or the alliance, or whatever you want to call them). Anonymous had incurred Spain's wrath back in March by temporarily knocking out the website of the national government.
Then, on Monday, it was announced that the Turkish police had captured 32 additional suspected members. A few days before, Anonymous had taken over the website of the Turkish Telecommunications Authority and shut it down. In other words, if you went to the national telecommunications website that day to find out why your phone wasn’t working, you instead found that the website wasn't working, and you had a tantrum.
And then, on Monday and again Tuesday, came the reports that hit closest to home: Anonymous was going after the Federal Reserve. Even for a group that essentially set off a series of attacks that brought the multinational giant Sony to its knees in April, this seemed like awfully big prey. Yet if you doubt the group's ability to do damage to a powerful adversary, you probably don't realize that it's already landed big blows against some pretty sizable opponents – to begin with, Sony, and MasterCard, and Iran. Or that its members recently broke into the website of HBGary, an internet security firm whose CEO threatened to out Anonymous members, and published 50,000 internal emails and the CEO's social security number, humiliating him into resigning from the company.
As astute observers will point out, the news of Anonymous' declaration of war against the Federal Reserve actually arrived on Saturday, when the group posted a YouTube video that opened with a clip of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke reassuring a journalist that he had the problem of the growing gap between rich and poor "under control." This clip was followed by a voice-over manifesto against the bank, accompanied by a series of title cards and delivered in the voice of a robot as might be imagined by a director of 1980s B-movies.
But the story didn't really take off until Tuesday, when a series of articles in the tech press noted that the group planned go to battle that day -- both by hacking into the bank's website and by staging a series of old-fashioned protests at different banks around the country. And so, that day, an inquiring journalist set out to track down the shadowy syndicate. Or the secretive fraternity. Or whatever.
Calls were made to security researchers (hackers employed by the "good guys"). Tweets were cast out into the waves of the Internet. And then, at about 9:30 that night, after hours of silence, an answer arrived in the form of an email: Go to the Manhattan Municipal Building. There would be people there. Ask for "Gary in the White Hat."
First, a little history: Anonymous started about eight years ago on the imageboard of 4chan.org, a website where people posted random pictures of things they thought were shocking or worthy of "lulz," a.k.a. laughs. (Often these things were porn.) In 2008, a coterie of some of the more devoted pranksters who'd found one another on the site declared war against the Church of Scientology, accusing it of censorship for removing an unflattering video of Tom Cruise from YouTube.
Protests were organized: demonstrators showed up to the Church's headquarters wearing masks portraying the grinning visage of the 17th-century English icon of anarchy Guy Fawkes. But the group's main battlefield was always the Internet. In December, the group attacked the websites of MasterCard and PayPal, whose executives had provoked them by suspending payments to WikiLeaks. Anonymous members saw WikiLeaks as a comrade in the fight against censorship.
And in April, after Sony PlayStation antagonized the group by suing a hacker who'd found a way to run third-party applications on its gaming consoles, Anonymous struck again, essentially commanding an army of Internet drones to bombard the company's website with automated information requests until the site was knocked offline. The group also claimed responsibility for publishing more than 10,000 emails stolen from a website of the Iranian government, and it's been said that they helped the agitators in Tunisia circumvent the online barriers that that the government there had thrown up in the revolution's path.
Traditionally, hackers have divided themselves into two groups: the "black hats," who exploit the vulnerabilities of their marks for profit, and the "white hats," who hire themselves out to protect the vulnerable. Anonymous fits into neither category. Some people call them "gray hats," but that implies an level of cohesion they tend to deny. In their online communications they insist they have no leader, no chain of command. Anyone who claims to be acting under the banner of Anonymous is by virtue of that fact a member of Anonymous.
And yet, the hat worn by Gary in the White Hat was indeed white. It had a full brim and a band around it, and that was the extent of any similarities between the wearer and Jack Nicholson's character from "Chinatown." Gary, as he asked to be called, was built like Roman Polanski, with rectangular glasses and a beard that hadn't been trimmed in a month. He was locking up a bike outside the municipal building while a crowd of about 60 people, mostly kids in their teens and twenties, sat on the ground a little ways off, in a sprawl of backpacks and sleeping mats and congas. A teenage girl was overheard inquiring, "Does anyone know the words to 'This Land Is Your Land'?"
Most of these people were not with Anonymous, Gary said. He explained that he had initially intended to hold his protest in a park a few blocks away, closer to the Federal Reserve, but several factors had intervened, including what Gary described as a corporate barbecue. Ultimately, he'd decided to merge his contingent of about twenty Anonymous supporters with a slightly larger mass of protestors who had set up camp under the eaves of the municipal building that night for a "sleep-in" demonstration against the mayor's proposed budget cuts.
"Anonymous is a decentralized group," Gary said, lighting a cigarette. "They have all sorts of different motives. There are those who are hackers, those who are activists, those who are 16-year-old kids wanting to impress their girlfriends." In general, the members rally around the belief that "people who hoard information are the same people who hoard wealth."
You can forget that earlier claim about Anonymous' reluctance to talk: Gary talked so much that he kept having to dig into his pocket for his matches so he could relight his cigarette. He said that he'd gotten involved with Anonymous a couple of months ago, when he saw something on the Internet about how they were planning a campaign against the country's central banking system and the banking industry in general, and were demanding that Bernanke step down. He wanted to help them "knock the corporations out of the government."
A year before that, Gary was working in real estate. "I made a lot of money and I lost a lot of money," is how he summed it up. His employer, he said, was a company that invested half a billion dollars buying up slum buildings in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx: "A slumlord, basically. They were trying to turn lead into gold."
He came to believe that "the people who rise to the tops of these corporations are basically sociopaths – they have no concept of right or wrong, they just want to make the boss happy."
In any event, the corporation's adventure in slum alchemy didn't pan out very well, and Gary was laid off last May. After a stint on unemployment, things got to the point where he was facing homelessness, so he set off on a bike ride down to Florida, camping out on private land at the invitation of strangers.
When he learned about Anonymous' battle against the banks he began trying to contact the group over Twitter. Eventually someone sent a reply saying they could use his help answering emails. Gary agreed to pitch in, and suggested to his unknown interlocutor that they supplement their online actions with a public protest near Wall Street.
He started a Twitter account devoted to promoting this idea -- @NYCcamp –- and soon began receiving messages from people around the country who said they wanted to hold protests of their own to coincide with his.
Outside the Manhattan Municipal Building on Tuesday night, Gary said he wasn't sure how those other protests had fared, and he admitted that the turnout at his own rally wasn't quite what he'd hoped for, but he didn't seem too disappointed. It is an article of faith among Anonymous members that, as their motto goes, Anonymous is legion. And besides, Gary had learned on Twitter a little while earlier that at least one additional Anonymous member had now joined the gathering. He looked around at the crowd. "I have no idea who she is," he said.