By now you've heard about how the shadowy collective Anonymous is launching cyberattacks—"Operation Payback"—against perceived enemies of Wikileaks, including PayPal, Amazon and MasterCard. But you've probably heard wrong. Let us debunk three commonly-held myths about Anonymous.
1) Anonymous is a powerful hacking organization
This random 22-year-old British kid named Chris "Coldblood" Wood has been making the media rounds throughout Operation Payback, portraying himself as a "spokesman" for Anonymous on British and Canadian television. This has been met with howls from many Anonymous partisans. There is no Anonymous spokesman because Anonymous is highly decentralized and ephemeral; any leadership is informal, and coordination is on-the-fly. Anonymous is not, as USA Today calls it , "an organization working with Operation Payback." Think of Anonymous more as a subversive brand than an established crime syndicate.
Some take the Anonymous brand more seriously than others—Anonymous' years-long war on Scientology is waged by hardcore volunteers, for example—but anyone can act in the name of Anonymous, from a kid hacking into Sarah Palin's email account, to a bunch of 4chan users taking down the blogging platform Tumblr or sending Justin Bieber to North Korea. All you need to do is come up with a cool name for your campaign, Photoshop a flier, slap on Anonymous' creepy headless suit logo and start doing something disruptive. Anonymous is a mob, not The Mob.
2) Anonymous is made up of highly-skilled hackers
So far, Operation Payback has caused a stir, but the amount of real damage Anonymous' attacks have done to their targets is tiny. While skilled hackers do sometimes participate in Anonymous actions (
like the aforementioned Sarah Palin Hacker*) the vast majority are only a little more computer-savvy than the average heavy Internet user. A skilled hacker would abhor all the noise Anonymous has been making during Operation: Payback—the point of most hacking is to do your damage and get out as quietly as possible.
There's a reason the favorite tool of Anonymous is the server-overloading software Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC), which has been used in this recent spate of attacks to crash MasterCard, Visa and Paypal's websites. Its simple push-button interface can be operated by anyone who watches a brief YouTube tutorial. Even so, Anonymous chat rooms and message boards routinely fill up with questions from people who have no idea how to operate LOIC.
3) Anonymous is Anonymous
Anonymous is often used to illustrate the perils and promise of complete Internet anonymity. Given Anonymous' name this is understandable, but a mistake nonetheless! Anonymous is far less anonymous than they'd like to believe. LOIC is easy to track, and already a 16-year-old has been arrested in connection with the attack on MasterCard. Sarah Palin's hacker was tracked down and sent to prison, and in 2008 an 18-year-old kid was arrested for attacking Scientology websites in the name of Anonymous. Nobody's really anonymous on the Internet anymore—not even Anonymous.
* Correction: All the Sarah Palin hacker did was guess Sarah Palin's password. Our bad.