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May 16, 2014updated 22 Sep 2016 11:26am

Anonymous’ best pranks, hacks and protests

A history of the hacktivists from Habbo Hotel to the Arab Spring.

By Jimmy Nicholls

Anonymous, the hacktivist clan, has a history that justifies its reputation. Both vilified and vindicated by the media, even the nature of the organisation is hotly disputed, with some preferring to call it a "movement" or "collective", the lack of a leader or single mouthpiece adding to enigma of, well, whatever it is.

The group has emerged from the background again as recent accusations of embezzlement attracted media attention. YourAnonNews, a Twitter feed with more than 1.2 million followers, had raised $54,000 in an Indiegogo campaign, $30,000 of which has gone missing.

Christopher "Jackal" Banks, resident of Denver in the States, has refused to explain what happened to that money, which he took receipt of after the campaign finished. Banks appears to have led the feed, which aspired to be a serious alternative media outlet with 25 contributors and regular updates.

As such, it seems a sensible time to revisit what has made this group so influential.

1. Habbo Hotel Raids

Since the start the group has been defined by a talent for pointless mischief, and this is a prime example. Between 2006 and 2007 swarms of Anonymous members would log on to Habbo Hotel, a virtual world set to isometric graphics which acts as a kind of social network. As part of the joke they would choose to play as identical black men with a suit and an afro, congregating around a pool.

From there the players blockd up the entrance to the area, arraying themselves into swastika formations. Reports that the move was a protest against a real pool’s decision to ban an HIV-positive child from their facilities have been disputed, and others have argued the prank was racist in itself. Yet the episode is important if only because it marks Anonymous’ first significant move outside of 4chan, the forum where the group was formed.

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2. Project Chanology

The Church of Scientology’s reputation for aggressive litigation was well founded when an interview with Tom Cruise talking about the cult was leaked to the internet, but if anything that only increased the attraction for Anonymous.

As Anonymous spread the video around the internet, the church issued takedown orders wherever it was posted. This prompted Anonymous to go on the offensive, flooding the church’s website with requests in distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, prank-calling the hotline and sending through black faxes.

The ensuing row led to a number of Anonymous members facing prison, and the group organising protests in cities around the world, many of which were attended by several hundred people. Instructions to protestors advising them to disguise themselves also led to the wide adoption of the Guy Fawkes masks from V for Vendetta, a symbol now inseparable from the group.

3. Operation Payback

The Internet generation’s fondness for piracy has been a well worn trope in media circles, and Anonymous reinforced this perception in its decision during 2010 to retaliate against Bollywood authorised DDoS attacks against torrent websites, where users could find links to pirated content. Anonymous decided to hit a number of copyright organisations, as well as associated law firms.

Anger increased when Visa and Mastercard withdrew payment services from WikiLeaks. Noting that many of the companies were happy to facilitate donations to neo-Nazi groups and other far right organisations, Anonymous organised DDoS attacks against the offending parties, disrupting American e-commerce for several days.

4. Arab Spring

While the political power of the group was growing, the issues the group had confronted had been parochial up to that point. As 2011 began, the Tunisian revolution provided a new opportunity for internet activism, with the incumbent regime attempting to shut off the internet.

In what became known as Operation Tunisia, or #optunisia, Anonymous lent digital support to protestors against a regime accused of corruption and oppression. Instructions were issued to Tunisians to help them back online, and DDoS attacks brought several government websites down.

This foreshadowed Egypt and Libya, with politicians and the media increasingly aware of the power of the internet and social media to facilitate protest and revolt. By the end of the revolt, Anonymous could plausibly claim to have helped overthrow a government, albeit a vulnerable one.

5. HBGary Federal

Later in the same year, the chief executive of security firm HBGary Federal told the Financial Times he had infiltrated Anonymous, working out the names of key players in the movement. Aaron Barr’s comments were met with disbelief from the community, who quickly attacked the firm’s website, taking control of the email system and bringing down the phone lines.

Barr had overegged his intelligence on Anonymous, and the hackers found plans to discredit WikiLeaks through "cyber attacks, disinformation and other proactive tactics" against the website’s supporters, among them journalist Glenn Greenwald. Barr would later resign, but the incident provide important ammunition to anyone suspicious of American snooping, paving the way to later revelations from Edward Snowden.


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