It was an “Elvis Meets Nixon” kind of moment: former HBGary Federal CEO Aaron Barr sporting blue hair and posing in front of a van sporting the Wikileaks logo down at New York’s Zuccotti Park, home of the Occupy Wall Street protest. What was he doing there? It’s complicated.
In an interview with Threatpost, Barr said he wanted to be on-hand on the day of the protest in part to observe what role, if any, his arch nemesis – the anarchic hacking group Anonymous – played in the events that transpired. But Barr’s e-mail address also turned up on dispatch to the New York FBI by Thomas Ryan, an independent security consultant who has admitted to informing on the doings of OWS organizers, prompting Barr critics called ‘foul,’ accusing him of trying to undermine the popular protests. Barr, it would seem, was …err…poking the Anonymous hornet’s nest once again.
The truth is more complicated, Threatpost learned in e-mail and Skype exchanges with Barr this week.
Barr confirmed that he spent the day with the protesters on September 17, the official start of what has become a month-old occupation of the financial district, before taking the evening train out of New York and back home. Barr’s impressions as a bystander were mostly positive. “There was lots of energy, lots of anger, and I think some hope amongst individuals that maybe individually felt frustrated and somewhat helpless against the system,” he wrote. But Barr also acknowledged that he ran into Thomas Ryan at the protest on September 17, but said he had nothing to do with Ryan’s efforts to expose the plans of the OWS organizers.
“Tom Ryan and I have similar interests in social media, Anonymous, and the OWS movement,” Barr wrote in an e-mail. Ryan copied Barr on an e-mail to Jordan Lloyd, the head of cyber security in the New York FBI office because “we know some common people at the NY field office and had a brief conversation at the OWS protest the first day about anonymous support for the protest, directions it might go, etc.,” Barr told Threatpost.
Though not involved in Ryan’s efforts, Barr wasn’t critical of them, either.
“I am not sure what the issue is if he did this as a private citizen. After all isn’t that what many of these movements are calling for, greater transparency,” Barr wondered.
Politically influential groups, also, need to be transparent, along with governments and corporations, Barr argued. By exposing the e-mail communications to and from the September17 mailing list used by the OWS organizers, Ryan was simply doing a public service: ascertaining whether (OWS) are what they seem or whether there are other element involved not being publicized.”
And that’s the crux of Barr’s curiosity with OWS – the reason, he claims, he put himself in Zuccotti Park on September 17.
“As an IT security professional, what intrigues me is the use of social media for outreach, organization (and) communication. What bothers me is the potential use to commit illegal acts such as attacks on corporations or government organizations to support the movement. This needs to be watched and guarded against.”
Recent reports have exposed the ties between Anonymous and affiliated groups and the OWS protests. Features like this one on Huffingtonpost.com have documented the ways that Anonymous and other groups have helped to spread the message of the OWS protests online, leveraging that group’s expertise in social media and connections with curious mainstream journalists.
At the same time, the OWS protests have given Anonymous members such as Gregg Housh (profiled in the Huffingtonpost article) a political platform that seems to transcend lulz (or “laughs”).
For those like Barr, who has made a study of Anonymous and also stood in as a straw man for the group, the OWS protests look like a kind of social media singularity – a moment at which chaotic and unfocused operations like Anonymous converge with a real political movement in “meatspace” – the real world.
Anonymous has long made a habit of using its hacking and social media skills as an “asymmetric threat” against targets of its choosing – banks (Bank of America), software firms (Sony), the intelligence community, and unlucky individuals, Barr points out.
A corporate executive, Barr is suspicious of the doings of labor unions that have joined in some OWS protests, and outright rejects the more straightforward attacks on capitalism that were voiced in Zuccotti Park that day. But he also shares protesters’ frustration with the current political climate, and even some of their anti establishment beliefs. (Barr is quick to note that he organized a protest against retail giant Wal Mart’s plans to open a box store in his home town.) In the process of merging with the OWS movement, Anonymous – like other groups – may also be corrupting it for its own ends, Barr warns.
“I think (OWS) is a popular uprising that is being pulled and used by many sides including Anonymous, unions, Moveon.org. etc.,” he wrote. “That’s probably somewhat natural for something like this.”