In recent years, online hackers who identified as being part of Anonymous and other groups have carried out dozens of high-profile online operations. When MasterCard and Visa suspended payments to WikiLeaks last December, hackers with Anonymous briefly took down the websites of both credit card giants. Other targets have included Sony, PayPal, Amazon, Bank of America, the Church of Scientology, and the governments of Egypt, Tunisia and Syria. Now law enforcement agencies across the world have begun cracking down on the hackers. In July, 16 suspected members of Anonymous were arrested in the United States. We take an inside look at how online hacker activist groups operate with three guests: Peter Fein, an activist who works with the group Telecomix, a volunteer organization that has supported free speech and an open internet in the Middle East, and who sometimes acts as a liaison to Anonymous and was one of several moderators on the Internet Relay Chat for OpBART, the latest Anonymous campaign targeting the San Francisco subway system; Gabriella Coleman, an assistant professor of media, culture and communication at New York University whose first book, "Coding Freedom: The Aesthetics and the Ethics of Hacking," is forthcoming, currently working on a new book about Anonymous and digital activism; and a member of the hacktivist group Anonymous, going by the pseudonym "X." [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me introduce some of our other guests right now, who are here. Peter Fein is an agent with Telecomix. He’s also an activist with Anonymous. He was one of several moderators on the Internet Relay Chat for OpBART. And we’re also joined here in New York by Gabriella Coleman, assistant professor of media, culture and communication at New York University. Her first book, Coding Freedom: The Aesthetics and the Ethics of Hacking, is forthcoming with Princeton University Press, and she’s currently working on a new book on Anonymous and digital activism.
Talk about what Anonymous did here in the case of BART and taking down the BART website and releasing information, Gabriella.
GABRIELLA COLEMAN: What’s so interesting about Anonymous is that they tend to not have one tactic, but many tactics and many operations and many networks and nodes at once. And I think the OpBART campaign reflects this. On the one hand, they did everything from black faxing to the stations to organizing a protest, to the more controversial hacking operations, as well, that we just heard about.
AMY GOODMAN: And Peter Fein, explain your role—I said that you’re an agent with Telecomix; most people will not know what Telecomix is—and what it means to be a part of the team that was involved with the whole BART action. Peter is joining us from Seattle.
PETER FEIN: Sure. So, like you said, I’m an internet activist. I work with a couple of different groups, one of which is called Telecomix. We have been trying to keep the internet online throughout the Middle East, most notably in Egypt over the last several months. I see that work as sort of the flip side of the coin to what Anonymous does, that if Anonymous takes sites down, Telecomix keeps them up.
My role in Anonymous has been—obviously I’m not little-A "anonymous," you can see my face and hear my voice—to help facilitate discussions. I write some propaganda. In OpBART, I was one of several moderators on our internet relay chat room. It’s an old-school form of multi-user chat. We had about 200 or so people in that room last night. And I just kind of help keep discussion moving, help keep things flowing, deal with people who are being abusive. But yeah, like that.
AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean to keep the flow going, the chat going, as these protests are taking place?
PETER FEIN: Just sort of setting a topic for the room, kind of asking questions, pointing people to links. You know, as my role in moderator, I’m really not very active, and I’m certainly not limiting what people can say, but just sort of—when you have that many people all talking at once, sometimes you get folks who are a little less mature and, you know, sort of will abuse the system, flood the channel with messages. And so, we just kind of manage that. But, you know, in the last five days, I probably, you know, actively spoke directly in the channel less than, you know, 50 or 100 lines.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me play another comment by BART spokesperson Linton Johnson, the one we tried to play just a minute ago, on the NPR station KQED in San Francisco.
LINTON JOHNSON: There is this whole push right now to try to find out why BART violated some constitutional rights, when in fact I don’t believe we did. What I do know that happened was this group Anonymous violated a fundamental constitutional right of our customers, and that is their right to privacy. They took the personal information and exposed it on the web for all to see—the home phone numbers, email addresses. Despite BART’s best attempt to protect that information, they were able to get a hold of it and violate the constitutional right to privacy for thousands of customers. And we find that shocking. And they do that under the cloak of protecting a different constitutional right, and that is the right to free speech. I am just stunned. And I think our customers are upset, as well. I know they’re upset, as well, that their rights to privacy were violated. We have the FBI looking into it, investigating, in fact, and other law enforcement agencies, to find out who this group Anonymous is and why they thought it was appropriate to violate our customers’ constitutional right to privacy.
AMY GOODMAN: That was BART spokesperson Linton Johnson. X is still on the line with us, of the group Anonymous. Your response to the BART spokesperson?
X: My response is an equal dose of indignation. Why was that information stored—again, I would ask you, your listeners and this BART fellow, why this information was stored on a server with a security that could have been broken by any 12-year-old script kiddie on the internet. It was for anybody to take. At least somebody took it who cares. At least somebody took it who used it to send a message not only to the world that censorship is wrong and intolerable, but that their information is being held in trust by a government they cannot trust, because they don’t know what they’re doing. [inaudible] don’t know whether BART didn’t care to secure that information or whether they didn’t know how to secure that information, but in [inaudible] case, they’re a government, and they should have been—they should have known better, they should have done better. If they want somebody to blame, blame the people who they gave that information to with trust. We took it in good faith, and we gave it not only to the world, we gave it back to the people who gave it to BART, to let them know that they need to fix that, everybody needs to fix that. We did that for the safety of the passengers.
And where’s the safety of the passenger who needs help, who needs to call 911 on his cell phone because he’s getting mugged at the end of a—dark end of some platform somewhere, but he can’t do it, he can’t call 911, because BART has cut off the cell phone service over less than a hundred protesters? And if this was a great tactic, why didn’t they use it against us last night? I was there. I was down there at the platform. We were using our smart phones. We were tweeting. We were surfing on the internet. There [inaudible] cutting of the service. They closed the stations, but how come they didn’t cut the cell phone service last night? I’ll tell you why. Because they know they’re wrong. They know we got them. And they know if they do it again, we will hurt them even worse than we’ve hurt them already.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask you, X, you heard the BART spokesperson saying the FBI is involved right now. Are you concerned about this? There have been a number of arrests of Anonymous members throughout the country in the last month. What are you doing about this?
X: I’m concerned to the extent, Amy, that I don’t want to get caught. And that’s why I’ve disguised my voice. I would much rather be [inaudible] for 20 years. I’d love to tell you who I am. I’d love to speak with a normal voice and have a normal conversation with you, with America, with anybody. I don’t want to hide like an animal. I don’t want to be hunted. I am literally running from coffeehouse to coffeehouse, from city to city, from state to state, to try to avoid this massive, multimillion-dollar manhunt that they’ve put out for Anonymous.
And for what? What have we done, Amy? Anybody [inaudible] point to one thing where we’ve hurt a single human being, where we’ve hurt a soul. You know, free Topiary, man, because, you know, that’s a young man who anybody would want to have as their son. And he’s not a criminal; he’s a kid, a kid with a conscience who wanted to change his world and make it better. That’s all we all are. We’re all just activists. We’re information activists just trying to make our world a bit freer and a little better. But we’re filled with indignation, when a little organization like BART, a little transit cop, police, like, kills its innocent people, two or three of them in the last few years, and then has the nerve to also cut off the cell phone service and act exactly like a dictator in the Mideast. How dare they do this in the United States of America? Amy, how dare they?
AMY GOODMAN: X is speaking to us. His voice is disguised. He’s with Anonymous. He was at the BART protest last night. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’re going to continue the conversation and look at the history of Anonymous and other hacktivist groups, and also look broadly about how these groups have been involved in uprisings around the world. This is Democracy Now! Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Major protests in the Bay Area as a result of BART, the subway system there, shutting down the internet and mobile service in fear of a protest. We’re going to look at this as a microcosm of bigger issues right now.
Peter Fein is still with us from Seattle, who works with the group Telecomix, a volunteer organization that supported free speech and an open internet in the Middle East, also sometimes acts as a liaison to Anonymous, was one of the several moderators of the Internet Relay Chat for OpBART, the latest Anonymous campaign targeting the San Francisco subway system. They hacked the BART system after BART shut down the internet and TV—internet and cell phone service.
We’re also joined by Professor Gabriella Coleman. She teaches media, culture and communications at New York University. Her first book, Coding Freedom: The Aesthetics and the Ethics of Hacking, is coming out from Princeton University.
Give us the history of Anonymous, Gabriella Coleman.
GABRIELLA COLEMAN: Anonymous came from an imageboard called 4chan, and for a period of time the name was used mostly for—
AMY GOODMAN: That’s four, number four.
GABRIELLA COLEMAN: Four.
AMY GOODMAN: Tran.
GABRIELLA COLEMAN: Chan.
AMY GOODMAN: Chan.
GABRIELLA COLEMAN: And the name was used mostly for what you could describe as anti-political activity. It was for trolling and pranking targets. And in 2008, Anonymous started to prank the Church of Scientology. And then, somewhat accidentally—
AMY GOODMAN: And why?
GABRIELLA COLEMAN: Because the Church of Scientology was trying to censor a video that had been leaked of Tom Cruise. They threatened lawsuits against Gawker, for example.
AMY GOODMAN: Tom Cruise, the actor, who’s a Scientologist?
GABRIELLA COLEMAN: Exactly. So, Anonymous started to prank and hack the Church of Scientology. And then they started to debate: shall we protest the church actually on the streets? And lo and behold, they did. In February 2008, there was worldwide protests, in Australia, Europe, United States. Six thousand hit the streets, and a political movement was born at that time. Since then, it’s undergone many changes. In 2010, they protested the Motion Picture Association of America, as well as the Recording Industry Association of America, for DDoSing The Pirate Bay. But the interesting thing—
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean by "DDoSing"?
GABRIELLA COLEMAN: That’s a distributed denial-of-service attack, and it’s technically not a hack. It’s when a server has too many requests, so it crashes, and you can’t access it. The users can’t access it. But what’s interesting was that this campaign was organized by a different set of people. And that is what defines Anonymous. It’s a little bit like a Hydra. There’s different networks and nodes and individuals who participate. But they really came to light in December of 2010, when, as you mentioned earlier, they hit PayPal and MasterCard after they stopped processing donations to WikiLeaks. And it was one of the largest direct action campaigns, DDoS campaigns, ever against websites.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, they were supporting WikiLeaks, which released State Department documents, the largest trove in the history of this country.
GABRIELLA COLEMAN: Absolutely. And they were also supporting WikiLeaks’ right to continue to host their servers. For example, Amazon had taken down some of their hosting for WikiLeaks at the time.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about LulzSec and what that is.
GABRIELLA COLEMAN: LulzSec really came to be in about March of 2011. They were a bit of an offshoot of Anonymous.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you spell "LulzSec"?
GABRIELLA COLEMAN: L-U-L-Z-S-E-C. "Sec" is for "security"; "Lulz" is for the fun—
AMY GOODMAN: Sort of the plurals of LOL, laugh out loud.
GABRIELLA COLEMAN: Of LOL, exactly. And they went on a 50-day rampage of sorts, where they hacked into all sorts of corporate and government websites, initially saying that they were doing it for the "Lulz," for the fun of it. They retired after 50 days. They brought a lot of attention to the sorry state of security. And then, some of the participants in LulzSec jumped on Anonymous, again, to start an operation called AntiSec, which continued with—
AMY GOODMAN: Anti-Security.
GABRIELLA COLEMAN: Anti-Security, to continue on with the hacking that they had started, although this time it had a much more political bent to it, an explicit political flavor to it.
AMY GOODMAN: Peter Fein, talk about how you got involved—and we appreciate that we can see your face, that you’re able to talk to us—and how Telecomix is a part of this, and take this global.
PETER FEIN: Sure. I am a computer programmer. And when the WikiLeaks crisis happened at the end of last year, I was outraged, just that the government and—could put pressure on large corporations to silence and stop the ability for this organization to receive funding. I, you know, made some videos about that. And in the course of looking for an audience for those, I stumbled upon the Anonymous IRC network. That network is public. If you google for "Anonymous IRC," the first hit you will get is one of the Anonymous Internet Relay Chat networks. I helped organize some protests in support of WikiLeaks. We put together events in 105 cities in one week of public planning.
Shortly thereafter, I got involved with this organization called Telecomix. Telecomix is not Anonymous. This is a separate group of people. There is some overlap in personnel. We operate similarly, in using IRC and also in the ways in which we are decentralized and lacking formal members and any sort of leaders. But on the Telecomix side, where Anonymous is running around breaking things, Telecomix believes that the best way to support free speech and free communication is by building, by building tools that we can use to provide ourselves with those rights, rather than relying on governments to respect them. That work got us involved—
AMY GOODMAN: And where did you get the—
PETER FEIN: Sorry?
AMY GOODMAN: Where did you get the term Telecomix, the name Telecomix?
PETER FEIN: It originated in—with a group of Europeans who were opposing a E.U. telecoms package about two-and-a-half years ago. And so, for the first year and a half or so of its existence, was largely a think tank providing political information to—in the—working in the legislative process, as well as—as well as working on encryption tools. When things started to get a little crazy in Egypt, we moved into a bit more of a proactive role. We were very active—Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria—trying to keep the internet running in these countries in the face of really almost overwhelming efforts by governments to shut them down. And that has been, more or less—
AMY GOODMAN: Talk quickly about Tunisia. Talk quickly about Tunisia, which helped to spark the uprising in Egypt, and exactly what your groups did.
PETER FEIN: So during the events in Tunisia, the Tunisian government was blocking people’s ability to access Twitter and Facebook. They were also sniffing the passwords of Facebook users by injecting some code into those web pages. And so, Telecomix and Anonymous helped provide people in Tunisia on the ground with tools to circumvent the censorship.
AMY GOODMAN: And then, moving on to Egypt and what your role is, what you did.
PETER FEIN: Sure. You know, there were really two phases of our work in Egypt, some of it very similar to Tunisia, where we were helping people access Twitter, helping people evade censorship, and then things got really, really crazy when the government of Egypt basically pulled the only fiberoptic cable into the country out of the wall. They more or less cut off all internet, cell and SMS service throughout the country, which forced us to get a little creative. We set up, working with users and ISPs around the world—we used some 1980s technology—we set up about 500 dial-up modem lines, where people could call in and access the internet over those lines. We also sent communication and medical advice, such as treatments for tear gas, to every fax machine in Egypt that we could find, because that was more or less the only way we could get information in and out of the country.
AMY GOODMAN: And what you’re doing in Syria, what Telecomix, what different hacktivists are doing in Syria?
PETER FEIN: Sure. The situation in Syria is a little different. Wheras in Tunisia they did some computer trickery to access people’s Facebook passwords, in Syria the police just torture people, just outright torture people for their Facebook passwords. That situation is a little—a little more precarious. We’ve been helping to provide people with encrypted tunnels called VPNs and Tor to evade some of the censorship. We’ve also been helping Syrians to publish videos and text and poetry that they would not be able to do safely or at all.
AMY GOODMAN: Could you quickly say—talk about how the media covers cyberactivists like you, Peter?
PETER FEIN: Yeah. Most of the focus has been on what—the mainstream form of hacking, like what the folks at Lulz Security do, like what X has done on bart.gov, you know. And the original meaning of the word "hack" is simply to use a system in a way its designer didn’t intend, to play a clever, clever technical trick. And that goes back to the origins of computer programming. And so, when you talk to a computer programmer who’s like really in the groove and like writing good code, he’ll tell you he’s hacking code. That’s something that is, in some ways, very different than hacking or defacing a website, but falls under that rubric of using systems in clever ways. And so, you know, I consider myself a code hacker, but I don’t hack websites. I don’t DDoS sites. I don’t do anything illegal. My wife would kill me.
AMY GOODMAN: Gabriella Coleman, what about the rumors that Anonymous plans to take down Facebook?
GABRIELLA COLEMAN: So that was just announced recently. And interestingly enough, that was actually one campaign that produced a lot of debate within Anonymous itself. Sometimes there’s a campaign that seems to carry a lot of consensus throughout the different nodes and networks. And this one was a little bit more controversial, in part because of the resource question. Facebook is actually very, very difficult to take down. It’s a large company with lots of system administrators and servers. So, some people said this might be impossible. And it’s also a little different because it’s planned so much in advance. I think many of the operations we’ve seen, whether it was Tunisia or BART, really bubbled up within a day or two, got a lot of attention, and then was quite successful. So we’ll see if something that’s planned so much in advance will take hold.
AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, you’ve just come back from Berlin, where you went to Computer Chaos Club camp. About 25,000 people were there. We just have about 10 seconds. The significance of this global movement?
GABRIELLA COLEMAN: Slightly smaller, 2,500.
AMY GOODMAN: Twenty-five hundred.
GABRIELLA COLEMAN: We were all camping.
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, that is, even if it is a zero that makes the difference.
GABRIELLA COLEMAN: I think the significance is that there are so many geeks and hackers with certain digital literacies and technical skills, and many of them are marshaling these skills for political purposes. I think we’re going to see this more and more in the pass, and it has a long tradition, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Gabriella Coleman, thanks for being with us, from New York University. And thank you to Peter Fein, joining us from Seattle, with the group Telecomix.