“Just don’t use my name, OK, please?” said the person on the phone. “I don’t want this to get out.” His cause for concern? He’d helped produce some innocuous content — nothing legally actionable — for “Anonymous”, the vague online group spawned by 4Chan’s /b/ forums, which is a place where literally anything goes.

He wasn’t worried that the police might track him down; he was worried about other people in Anonymous finding out — because to them, to stand up and identify yourself is seen as the worst thing you can do. Stripping off the Anonymous mask is viewed as a form of betrayal by the wider group.

Last week I spent much of a day inside the internet relay chat (IRC) rooms where Anonymous makes its decisions — and what a mess that turns out to be. I was led there by someone who had got in touch because he felt the group was being misrepresented in the media. One of my interviewees is still a student in the U.K., while the other recently left a British university. They’re living in completely different countries but both frequent the same IRC channels, oblivious of each other.

My main guide, “an0n”, has been on /b/ for about four years. He showed me how to get on to the IRC rooms where, just after the MasterCard web server had been knocked offline, the chatter was trying to identify the next target. You have to know the right server, and the right rooms on those servers. Nobody entirely trusts anyone. The occasional journalist pops up, asking questions like “who are you attacking next?” They get lost in the flow; nobody knows anyway. These chatrooms have up to 3,000 people in them at a time, and the questions come in a stream and pass by in a river of commentary, observations, links and jokes. You wouldn’t say that it’s directed; more that it swings in various directions like a flock of birds, apparently aware of its own vector but unable to force it on any of its members.

My guide pointed out that Anonymous is conflicted from its core, because it’s an outgrowth of people who themselves have come from /b/, so most aren’t that interested in morality. They’re in it for the “lulz” — their delight at the discomfort they inflict on others — or whatever Anonymous and its associated scenes are doing for the money. Attacking Amazon, or PayPal, or Twitter over a moral or ethical issue is a slightly new experience for many; usually they’re into tormenting people.

“People trolling RIP pages on Facebook [or] missing girls’ pages. It’s the most racist, xenophobic place on the internet. It’s addictive, and it pisses [outside] people off,” An0n told me. And there’s the money too. That can mean circulating cracked software, serial keys, keygen (licence key generating) software, logins and passwords for paid sites, and so on. “If you had a DVD of Harry Potter 7 Part 1, you would make 12-15 grand [GBP12—15,000] selling it to the [hacker] scene [on IRC],” my guide explained.

The key thing about Anonymous, he says, is that it’s like Fight Club. You don’t say that you’re in it, and you certainly don’t speak as if you’re representing it, or know what it’s going to do — as one called Coldblood did last week. Coldblood’s name is mud in those forums and on /b/. “He’s a fraud,” insisted my contact. Coldblood is just someone who has offended the Anonymous hivemind by representing it.

But there’s the jostling crowd inside the chatrooms — and then there are the few serious people who are actually making a difference. An0n pointed out that there are more serious players: “I know a guy who is using a botnet of 25k computers to do this,” he observed. “He’s a scene hacker, which is as good as you get.” It’s difficult — perhaps wrong — to call Anonymous a group. It’s a loose collective, mainly of teenagers with time on their hands and older people (almost all men) with more nous and considerably more technical skills. It’s most like a stampeding herd, not sure quite what it wants but certain that it’s not going to put up with any obstacles — until it reaches an obstacle it can’t hurdle, in which case it moves on to something else. How long, I asked an0n, did he think the group would keep Amazon and PayPal in its sights? “One or two weeks,” he guessed. In fact, three days later a Twitter announcement suggested it would instead focus on distributing WikiLeaks content via BitTorrent rather than attacks.

The other intriguing element is the fear expressed by people “inside” it about being linked to it. It’s a strange sort of group that suppresses acknowledgement of membership while professing to favour freedom. But Anonymous doesn’t have a manifesto as such.

You might calculate that in four or five years Anonymous will be finished: today’s participants will have grown up, be busy with jobs and real life. But the internet constantly renews itself with a younger generation which pushes the barriers further than the previous ones, and what was novel to the previous one becomes commonplace for successors. Peer-to-peer music downloads? Done it. BitTorrent film downloads? Everyone does now. This generation of Anonymous members will grow up. But the idea won’t go away.

Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2010