First Posted: 7/28/11 10:09 AM ET Updated: 7/28/11 10:15 AM ET
Within the ranks of Anonymous, one member had crossed a line: He granted an interview to a reporter, discussing his role in the shadowy hacker group.
"Attempting to use all the work that so many have done for your personal promotion is something I will not tolerate," another member told him in the group's Internet chat room after reading the article.
The hacker who gave the interview was then banished from the online forum, a lesson to others who shine too brightly in a movement that takes pains to speak with one collective voice.
This incident sheds light on the inner workings of Anonymous, the loose-knit collection of hackers that has claimed responsibility for a wide assortment of computer security breaches in recent months, successfully penetrating the defenses of Sony, the CIA and other government sites. Among the government and private sector security experts engaged in ongoing digital skirmishes with hackers, Anonymous has emerged as a primary target -- and an elusive target, at that.
"How do you break the back of an organization that doesn’t have an organization?" said E.J. Hilbert, a former FBI cyberinvestigator and president of the cybersecurity firm Online Intelligence.
That question goes to the heart of a widening criminal investigation into the prolific hacker movement. Last week, the FBI arrested 14 suspected members of Anonymous for a December attack that temporarily brought down PayPal's website in retaliation for the company suspending the account of the whistle-blower site Wikileaks.
An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment on the investigation, but one U.S. law enforcement official told Reuters the arrests were providing "a treasure trove of information" that will lead to further arrests. On Wednesday, British police said they arrested a 19-year-old man who they believe was the spokesman for Lulz Security, an offshoot of Anonymous.
A SWARM OF BEES
Others question the effectiveness of the raids, arguing that those detained appear to be low-level members who would offer little valuable intelligence to authorities because of the group's amorphous structure.
"They're loosely put together in a way where not a lot of members know each other personally," said Matt Harrigan, chief executive of the security firm Critical Assets. "They're like a very broad swarm of bees.”
While there may be no queen bee, members of Anonymous have distinct roles. Only a small group of hackers within the movement have the skills to pull off sophisticated cyberattacks, according to Gabriella Coleman, an assistant professor at New York University who studies Anonymous.
Some are programmers or security researchers, she said. Others are skilled at video editing and design. Still others bring their own unique weapons to the movement.
Ryan Cleary, another 19-year-old hacker, was arrested and charged in June with supplying the splinter hacker group LulzSec with a botnet, which is a network of virus-infected computers used to disable websites by flooding them with traffic.
Despite the arrests of Cleary and other alleged members of Anonymous, the group vows to continue its brazen campaigns, issuing defiant statements to law enforcement and claiming to be unstoppable.
That air of invincibility, members say, stems from the fact that Anonymous not only has no leaders, it is not even really a formal group.
"Anonymous is an idea," one member, who goes by the online moniker "Squirrel," told The Huffington Post in an online chat forum. "If you agree with the idea, you're a member of Anonymous."
PART OF SOMETHING LARGER
That idea is based on a broad set of principles, including promoting free speech on the Internet and exposing corruption and lax security within corporations and government agencies.
"That is the best way I can describe anonymous: They are you, they are me, they are anyone who has ever cared about what's going on in the world today," said another member, who asked not be identified.
Even the most unsophisticated hackers can volunteer for Anonymous campaigns by downloading software -- known as a "Low Orbit Ion Cannon" -- that brings down websites by flooding them with traffic, an attack known as a "distributed denial of service." This low barrier to entry attracts many members, observers say.
"You don't have to fill out a form with your personal information, you aren't being asked to send money, you don't even have to give your name, but you do feel like you are actually part of something larger," Coleman wrote in an academic paper on the group published in April.
In 2003, Anonymous emerged from 4chan - a chat forum for hackers and video game enthusiasts - and focused its initial hacking campaigns on organizations cracking down on music piracy. In 2008, the group launched attacks on the Church of Scientology for its efforts to remove from the Internet a leaked video featuring Tom Cruise boasting about church practices.
The political direction of Anonymous formed organically, with furious debates raging on Internet chat forums.
"There were hundreds of people having conversations at hundreds of miles an hour," Coleman said. "It was so unclear what the hell was going to happen."
In December, Anonymous gained widespread notoriety by launching cyberattacks against PayPal, Mastercard, Visa and Amazon.com for suspending payments to the whistleblower website Wikileaks.
Since then, the group has taken credit for numerous high-profile campaigns, gaining followers and touting their exploits on Twitter and the file-sharing Web site Pastebin. Last week, shortly after the arrests, the group claimed to have hacked into NATO servers and threatened to release classified documents
WAITING IN THE WINGS
For law enforcement, the challenge will be to use last week's arrests to make further inroads within Anonymous. Those who were arrested are likely talking to authorities, especially when they realize the stiff penalties they face: up to 15 years in prison.
"Everyone of those kids is talking," Hilbert said. "The question is: What do they really know and who do they really know?"
The traditional law enforcement approach to breaking up organized crime -- using "small fish" to catch "big fish" -- does not apply in this case, Hilbert said. For every member arrested, there are "hundreds" waiting in the wings, he said.
While dismantling Anonymous may be impossible, Hilbert said, authorities could still disrupt the group by targeting members who expose themselves by exhibiting a common hacker characteristic -- a desire for publicity.
"They all want credit," Hilbert said. "They all want to be known for being a part of this. If they didn't, they wouldn’t be talking about it. It's human nature."
The culture of Anonymous, though, discourages individuals from standing out. Members push each other to reach consensus on their next target. Those who try to assert leadership tend to get disciplined or ignored.
“It’s designed so that no one can ever take power or leverage influence to set the agenda," said Luke Simcoe, a graduate student at Ryerson University in Toronto who studies Anonymous.
A COMMON CAUSE
For the most part, members of Anonymous know each other only by their online nicknames. They coordinate their actions largely over Internet Relay Chat forums, many of which are open to the public.
There are dozens of forums, or “channels,” including one for reporters to ask questions. Most channels have moderators and a small circle of influential participants holds sway, but never too much, members say.
Some members are crude, profane and combative. Others spend time railing against large corporations. But every so often, they unite around a common cause.
During their attacks on Mastercard and Visa, one forum swelled to more than 7,000 people, with participants selecting targets by taking votes, according to Coleman.
Now, authorities are engaged in a global manhunt to punish members involved in those attacks and others, raiding dozens of homes and making arrests across the United States and Europe.
It is a game of cat and mouse, with authorities chasing a group of leaderless, nameless hackers across the digital ether.
To some observers, it is just the beginning.
"This is the year of the hacker, where you can sit anywhere in the world and make your little attacks," Hilbert said. "It's not about identity theft or making money. It's about showing you can. It's a slap in the face to the establishment. How do you break that? You don’t."