Opinion: Anon Will Need More Than Porn Takedowns To Rehab Its Image

The hacktivist group Anonymous, it seems, is bent on rehabilitating its image. In recent months, the anarchic hacking collective has moved from retaliatory attacks on enemies (like Aaron Barr) and outing “snitches,” to squelching out child pornography networks (Operation DarkNet, launched in October) and supporting the Occupy Wall Street protests. 

Anonymous’s efforts to don the white hat AND the Guy Fawkes mask may take more than just picking different targets for its “Ops,” says Joshua Corman, the Director of Security Intelligence at Akamai Technologies. In a recent, exclusive interview with Threatpost, Corman told Threatpost editor Paul Roberts that the group’s cyber vigilantism itself is the problem and “rife with unintended consequences.”

Here’s a transcript of their talk, which took place October 26th.

The hacktivist group Anonymous, it seems, is bent on rehabilitating its image. In recent months, the anarchic hacking collective has moved from retaliatory attacks on enemies (like Aaron Barr) and outing “snitches,” to squelching out child pornography networks (Operation DarkNet, launched in October) and supporting the Occupy Wall Street protests. 

Anonymous’s efforts to don the white hat AND the Guy Fawkes mask may take more than just picking different targets for its “Ops,” says Joshua Corman, the Director of Security Intelligence at Akamai Technologies. In a recent, exclusive interview with Threatpost, Corman told Threatpost editor Paul Roberts that the group’s cyber vigilantism itself is the problem and “rife with unintended consequences.”

Here’s a transcript of their talk, which took place October 26th.

 

Threatpost: During a panel discussion at this year’s DEFCON, you called on Anonymous to direct its energies in more constructive ways and wondered if the group targeted, say, child pornography rings, whether that might not be better than attacking, say, Sony. Now that they’ve taken you at your word, do you see it as a good thing or not?

Joshua Corman: Well, first a caveat: I was and am by no means encouraging vigilante behavior. Historically, vigilante behavior has been fraught with problems and rife with unintended consequences. In this case, we should expect similar complications. At DEFCON, I offered that example really as a throwaway comment. I, and others, suggested that while some people get behind some (Anonymous) operations, most people would get behind operations that remove a menace to society like child exploitation. What was great about the aftermath of that panel was that people who were behind the vague notion of vigilante behavior were now chewing on the idea of a concrete exploitation from a specific or unspecific Robin Hood like group that revealed moral and legal abuses. Harkening back to that day, people rightly pointed out that while they would like to see the elimination of child exploit sites, they worried about things like due process, chain of evidence as well as how such actions might interfere with active police cases. Child exploitation, after all, is one of those charges where you’re not even “guilty until proven innocent,” you’re just guilty forever. Tainted and guilty until…forever in the mind of the public. What is there to stop abuse of this noble vigilante behavior if it becomes a mechanism to smear or hurt dissenting opinions or other targets? One of the nice things about the rule of law is that you’re insulated and protected against baseless operations that could hurt someone. In the face of less lawful, more chaotic individuals, these kinds of charges can be damning and damaging weapons.

I think its also entirely possible that Anonymous isn’t motivated by a desire to take down child porn, but instead to improve the PH balance of public opinion. People, even though they were horrified to see the Collateral Murder video, were happy to see it come out. Most humans, I believe, aren’t chaotic actors. We adhere to a de-facto social contract and prefer structure. But in that de-facto social contract, there’s tension over whether the ends justify the means. so we tend to fall back to rule of law. In the net calculus, we’re in favor of the system we have in place. Even so, individuals can cheat the system and make the right thing happen.

I like to say “there’s no wrong way to do the right thing.” Someone who is of a more lawful bent may say “there’s a right way to do the right thing.” So I’d guess most people like the outcomes (of Anonymous’s actions) but – if they thought about it – would find the means problematic. Since a huge part of the Anonymous brand – or franchise – revolves around this need to be perceived as a positive. They need that to maintain and grow their power base, since their target demographic is more aligned with the Neutral to Lawful side of the grid, they need to throw a bone to them.

Threatpost: Does that mean you see the Operation DarkNet (take down of child pornography sites) as mostly public relations?

Joshua Corman: So one point is: this may simply be a tactic to win favor and improve the perception of the brand. It may also be an idea that they came up with on their own or from us and wanted a better outcome. It could be that there’s a rift within Anonymous about imposing a social contract and institutional structure. Early on, right before Occupy Wall Street seemed to be legitimized by the left and the media, the moral minority was losing that civil war within Anonymous because particular individuals within the group are more chaotic and Machiavellian in their approach. And it would be more likely that a chaotic actor would abuse that kind of PR lever. Imagine a world in which everyone took their ambitions and vigilante outcomes into their own hands. They’d be stepping all over each other and working at odds even with common objectives.

Threatpost: You mentioned the role Anonymous has played in promoting the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. Do you see that as evidence that the group is evolving from chaotic actors to a more overtly political force?

Joshua Corman: It’s interesting. With the Occupy Boston movement, we saw Anonymous doxing (publishing sensitive information about) the Boston Police Department. So, we are at the very moment that people in the Beltway and media are starting to see Anon as a legitimate political player or movement, and the group is working against that. Actions against law enforcement threatens that ascension. What’s clear is that if (Anonymous) want more recruitment, they need to realize that breaking the law and threatening law enforcement is framing them in a way that may compromise their objectives and be a liability.

Threatpost: Can we even call it a movement when its so atomized?

Joshua Corman: Well, people who follow the group – including you and I – know that they are organized. But the general public has less data than we do. But Occupy Wall Street is a political movement that could affect the next election, and Anonymous has a hand in it. It seems to me to be self defeating to risk an unlawful action while you’re building momentum. Over the last nine months, people have been writing about “Is Anon Republican? Are they Democrat or Republican or neither.

Threatpost: Aren’t they more or less a libertarian group, politically? 

Joshua Corman: Sometimes. But they speak a different language. You see different memes and ideas filtering through. Its frustrating to see press narratives try to represent Anonymous as having a single ideology from Chanology (the Anonymous campaign against the Church of Scientology) through now. The group with the most continuity was Lulzsec , which was irritated with the Democratic process of target selection within Anonymous. There you had a pocket of like-minded individuals and they kind of took off. Do I think they could get involved in politics? Hell yes. Especially as they attract new members. We can all think of hackers we know – you run into them at one of these con(ferences) and say ‘Thank God ____ is on our side!” At some point, there may be a time when one of those decides, for various reasons, to cross over. If Anonymous grows in esteem and public support, they may gain real hacking power, where now most of that is based in groups like Lulzsec. Its intoxicating and we see many people working within organizations who feel like ‘I’m sick of nobody listening to me.”

Threatpost: Can you give us predictions for what we might expect to see from Anonymous in the next 12 months? 

Joshua Corman: My opinions change frequently. My high level narrative hasn’t changed a lot. Anarchy or chaos isn’t sustainable and tends to be self defeating. If think of Hobbes, Locke, etc. Those came out of rational self interest. Out of convenience forced into some kind of self order – that could be fear of being caught or desire for more power and influence. Essentially, if Anonyymous remains a movement we’ll either see some segmentation in the ranks. There may be specific micro groups that share common things, like Lulzsec. It could be about weeding out corruption, like Operation Darknet, which took down child porn sites. You may see more specialization with stronger bonds that are not as easily broken, with a common charter and operational code of conduct. Because chaos is self defeating – they’ll end up characterized as domestic terrorists. So either a Leviathan will arise and there will be some structure imposed, or a moral minority will flee what will be a contaminated brand. Anonymous might end up being like the(environmental group) Earth First. They were perceived as too extreme when they were spiking trees. Greenpeace was perceived as the more palatable alternative. Most people aren’t anarchists. They might like your idea or find it cathartic. But most people aren’t anarchistic. They may see a schism between a more moderate Anon and a more extreme version of the group. while they’re still under one big tent – not only can the political ambitions of a few be corrupted by the ambitions of another, but anyone can claim the brand of Anonymous. In some ways, they’ve been God’s gift to APT and criminals. You can just leave a calling card that says “we are legion” and you may get away with it.

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Discussion

  • Sam Bowne on

    I disagree with this description of Anonymous and the weak, diffuse moral position Mr. Corman takes. Anonymous does not use a "tactic to win favor and improve the perception of the brand" -- they are just an angry mob, spoiling for a fight. Targets are selected hastily, almost at random, such as Antisec's targeting of all government agencies, schools, or anything resembling them. The point is to attack something, anything, just to have LULZ and to feel powerful. There ARE wrong ways to do the "right thing". If Anonymous wanted to decrease child pornography or narco-terrorism, they would quietly deliver their tips to law enforcement, so it could help real investigations. It is short-sighted and irresponsible to suggest that a change in targets or methods would make Anonymous acceptable. Anonymous is unworthy of support until they set firm rules against illegal activity, such as dumping the personal data of innocent people, and they expel the criminals from their ranks. Until they do that, they are the problem, not the solution. It is not enough to become a kinder, gentler, lawless mob.

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