Worldwide arrests in recent weeks have not managed to dent the resolve of the online group Anonymous.
The hackers’ Italian branch said today that it had blocked access to the Vatican’s official website.
Catholic Church officials said they weren’t sure why their site went down.
Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist who studies the Anonymous movement and teaches at McGill University in Montreal, says many Anonymous activists do not have sophisticated computer hacking skills, but still participate fully in the movement.
“What sets Anonymous apart is its scale, and depth and breadth,” says Coleman. “Anonymous has managed to spread and circulate in quite monumental ways in part because they’re organizing online.”
She adds, “They’ve certainly captured the imagination like no one else politically in the past year.”
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Marco Werman: The hacking collective known as Anonymous claimed another victim today. The group’s Italian branch said it had blocked access to the Vatican’s official website. Catholic Church officials said they weren’t sure why their site went down. The alleged cyber attack on the Vatican comes just a day after several suspected Anonymous members were arrested in the U.S. and Europe. One of those detained turned out to be an informant for U.S. law enforcement. Gabriella Coleman is an anthropologist who studies the Anonymous movement and teaches at McGill University in Montreal. She says not all Anonymous activists have sophisticated computer hacking skills.
Gabriella Coleman: There’s many, many operations that do not require the work of hackers. I would say that a lot of people in Anonymous are geeks. They’re invested in the kind of culture and politics of the internet. They have digital illiteracies; they don’t necessarily have those skills. I would say the great majority of Anonymous fall into that category with a number of people who have technical skills to run infrastructure and, then again, the hacker-kind of operations are quite famous but they’re really only a chunk of the operations that Anonymous has conducted.
Werman: Last week Interpol announced that it had arrested 25 Anonymous members in various parts of the world. How global is this movement?
Coleman: It’s not in every corner of the earth. I don’t think that there’s a lot of people in the Continent of Africa, for example, who are Anons. There has been one big operation there, I believe in Nigeria and perhaps in Zimbabwe as well, but the great majority I would say are in North America. They are in Europe, Western and Eastern Europe and they are in Latin America with Brazil having a huge understudied contingent – a very, very interesting group because they both have a kind of hacking crew who’ve done a lot of hacks as well as others again who engage in non-hacking operations.
Werman: You think about this stuff a lot, Gabriella. I am wondering, what other group or social movement historically do you think Anonymous or Anon, as they are often referred to, resembles?
Coleman: I would say that there are other groups that have a similar sort of rowdy, irreverent disposition where they fuse pranksterism with hacktivism such as the Yes Men currently, or the Yuppies, or the Situationists as well, but I think what sets Anonymous apart is its scale and depth and breadth. A lot of those other movements were small and tightly controlled, sometimes even a vanguard of sorts. Anonymous has managed to kind of spread and circulate in quite a monumental way in part because they are organizing online and that definitely helps in terms of its visibility and circulation.
Werman: Finally for you as an anthropologist, what interests you about this movement, specifically about Anonymous?
Coleman: I think part of it is the difficulties of researching it. I used to work on Free and open source software which is also a kind of really interesting arena for geeks and hackers, but their access was quite easy, it was quite straightforward. Anonymous really has pushed the limits of what’s possible ethnographically and that has been a really interesting challenge. I feel like I’m often operating in a maze or a labyrinth and it feels like a puzzle, and so those elements are definitely part of the appeal but also part of the frustration.
Werman: What does all this tell you about humans and their behavior?
Coleman: I think one of the interesting things about Anonymous is that they came from a place called ‘Fortune’ which is an image board where the name was used to harass others in prank and troll. Then there was a kind of transformation whereby people used similar tactics but channeled them politically.
Werman: When you say image board, this is online?
Coleman: Yes. Fortune is online and, for those who haven’t been, it’s quite an offensive place so be ready to be shocked if you go there. I do find it fascinating that from one of the most offensive quarters on the internet there has been a very, very strong political will and sensibility that has formed and it is one that is controversial at its core. Not everyone is going to agree with their tactics; they might agree with some, not with others. Some might disagree with all of them, some might support them wholly, but they’ve certainly captured the imagination like nobody else, politically, in the last year.
Werman: So given where they came from, are these decent, moral people, the hacktivists in Anonymous?
Coleman: While many are geeks and hackers, from what I have seen because I have met some over time, there’s just too much variability there. It’s almost impossible to kind of come up with a profile I would even say for individuals who contribute to Anonymous.
Werman: Gabriella Coleman, the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University in Montreal, thanks very much for your insights.
Coleman: You’re welcome.
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