Anonymous refers to an Internet-based collaborative activist organization. It launched its first major web campaign in 2008 against Scientology, with attacks against its websites, YouTube videos, and calls for protests. Anonymous lacks formal membership, is loosely organized, and is motivated by different social causes, including freedom of speech and individual privacy, rather than money. Anonymous became internationally known during 2010 for its actions against MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal in support of WikiLeaks and in 2011 with attacks against Tunisian government websites for freedom of speech and freedom from oppression during the Arab Spring. The group also declared war on terrorist organizations after the two major terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015.

Anonymous Against Surveillance

As noted earlier, Anonymous became internationally known during 2010 for its distributed denial of service (DDoS) actions against MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal in support of the website WikiLeaks, contributing to making public secret documents related to the activities of the U.S. National Security Agency and government surveillance. The attacks on the financial websites took place because MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal did not want to process donations in support of WikiLeaks, which led to company losses of millions of dollars.

While the group is decentralized, members connect in Internet forums to plan various online attacks. The most common method of attack is denial of service, by overloading a website with traffic until it crashes. A DDoS attack is a way of drowning a computer system with far more requests for information than it can handle, causing it to shut down. Another method involves accessing organizational databases and releasing sensitive data on the web. A common goal of its members is to make sure that no government or corporation can control or censure the Internet and every citizen can keep his or her personal information safe, including online communications.

In the course of time, the group has attacked different organizations, from government agencies to terrorist groups and banks. The UK Home Office website was the target of a cyberattack by Anonymous in 2012, in protest against government surveillance plans to monitor the email exchanges and website visits of every person in the United Kingdom. A similar cyberattack happened to government bureaus in several Chinese cities, including Chengdu, a provincial capital in southwest China, in protest against the country’s Internet restrictions and the blocking of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and sensitive political information. Anonymous also posted information on how Chinese users can get around the restrictions imposed by the government.

The organization also targeted several Canadian government websites in 2015 to protest Canada’s antiterrorism bill, which the organization claims infringes on individual privacy and empowers surveillance and security forces to monitor people’s private communications. Anonymous posted a video on YouTube asking Canadian citizens to defend their rights and start protesting against the governmental measures. Also in the fall of 2015, the group targeted the official website of the Belgian prime minister Charles Michel, the Brussels Parliament, and the website of Belgium’s Federal Public Services Home Affairs for what the organization alleges are censorship and corruption.

Members of the online Anonymous have also allegedly attacked a number of Vietnamese government websites to protest against online censorship and human rights violations in the country, as well as official Saudi government websites to protest the arrest, torture, and condemnation to death of a teenager for his participation in the Arab Spring protests.

Robin Hood or Security Threat

When Anonymous leaked top-secret National Security Agency documents in 2013, a debate started not only about the U.S. government’s surveillance but also about possible threats that organizations like Anonymous might represent, with access to just about any network and all information. The risks are high in circumstances where official classified information and documents are hacked, are released publicly, and fall into the wrong hands. This can jeopardize the operations of the intelligence community and law enforcement organizations and put individuals’ lives at risk.

In the same context, the discussion about the actions of Anonymous actions is also centered on the degrees and purposes of government surveillance and considering measures that are legal, including according to the PATRIOT Act, and necessary in the fight against terrorism, a fight in which even Anonymous is involved. This issue is much more complex than a simple Robin Hood–type decision of fighting for citizens against government. This situation underlines the characteristics of the organization that make it a successful digital group but that also pose problems in its strategy and actions. Unlike in a formal organization, the decisions in Anonymous tend to have a subjective, one-sided nature, many times nonrepresentative of the majority of the membership. This could be seen in different actions where a few members do something in the name of the organization, only for the action to be denied later by a different Anonymous account. An example is the release of Ku Klux Klan member names and addresses in 2015, only for the release to be denied later after many errors were noticed and then to actually have the list corrected. Despite its stated concern for the people, this type of situation can be much riskier if the action deals with business information that can affect the stock market or with government documents that put lives at risk.

Maria Petrescu, Bernardo Negron-Rodriguez, and Maria Julian

See also Arab Spring ; National Security Agency ; National Security Agency Leaks ; PATRIOT Act ; WikiLeaks

Further Readings

C.C. “How Guy Fawkes Became the Face of Post-Modern Protest.” The Economist (November 4, 2014). . (Accessed November 2015).

Coleman, Gabriella.Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. London, England: Verso, 2014.

Dobusch, Leonhard and Dennis Schoeneborn. “Fluidity, Identity, and Organizationality: The Communicative Constitution of Anonymous.” Journal of Management Studies, v.52/8 (2015).

McDonald, Kevin. “From Indymedia to Anonymous: Rethinking Action and Identity in Digital Cultures.” Information, Communication & Society, v.18/8 (2015).

The Economist. “An Anonymous Foe: Hackers Hit Big Companies, the IMF and the Headlines” (June 16, 2011). (Accessed November 2015).