It's a nice, easy construct to conceive of things in groups. That goes for perceptions of people, too: he's a card-carrying Democrat, she's a Heather, they're geeks...
So when some entity with even the hint of organization makes a mark on the public's consciousness, our inclination is to think of it as a monolithic group.
The problem the public, not to mention the media, is having in formulating an idea of Anonymous, the loosely banded affiliation of computer hackers and activists who have targeted BART over the last week, is that it is not a formalized "group." You don't get a membership card in the mail, a bumper sticker, or a patch for your blog. This distinction became more important Wednesday, when "Anonymous" publicized the names, addresses, personal e-mails, and passwords of 102 BART police officers over one of the Twitter accounts associated with it.
But then came a tweet from another account that has been used to organize protests against BART, @AnonyOps:
"The leak today of BART officer data could be the work sanctioned by those who truly support anonymous, or agent provocateurs. Stay skeptical"
"anonymous hasn't claimed responsibility for that hack. those of us at #opbart are in support of the planned protest aug 22"
So did they or didn't they?
How do you become a member of Anonymous? You simply commit an action while calling yourself Anonymous.
So whoever hacked into the BART Police Officers Association may not have done so with the consent of any other individuals previously affiliating themselves with the Anonymous "brand." (Yesterday, someone who said she was a French girl claimed responsibility for the hack. The girl then "offered a link to the leaked police information Wednesday during an Anonymous-hosted Internet relay chat," according to the Chronicle.)
Anonymous tweeted their own definition of what they are yesterday:
[Anonymous is] the first Internet-based superconsciousness. Anonymous is a group, in the sense that a flock of birds is a group. How do you know they're a group? Because they're traveling in the same direction. At any given moment, more birds could join, leave, peel off in another direction entirely.
In a 2008 article from the Baltimore City Paper, one IT professional who took part in Anonymous-organized protests against the Church of Scientology said he "goes back and forth on whether he considers himself Anonymous."
So the person pictured above at the BART protest may not be a hacker, but by donning a Guy Fawkes mask, he or she has become aligned with Anonymous.
Assistant Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU Gabriella Coleman, who has been studying Anonymous and digital activism, calls Anonymous a "multi-headed hydra" with many different parts and goals. OpBART tweeted yesterday that "it" does not agree with the publishing of the BART police officers' information.
This is also not the first time Anonymous, or someone simply committing an action he or she sees as being in tune with the group, has published personal information as part of the BART Operation. On Saturday, Anonymous published the public e-mails of BART officers and phone numbers, in a Black Fax and e-mail bomb action. They also hacked into the third-party myBART site, releasing the names and passwords of 2,001 people, and in many cases their addresses and phone numbers as well.
Not all Anonymous members are hackers. Physical protests like the one targeting BART give the group exposure and help them find new members.
"A lot of the times in the news they'll say it's hackers," Gabriella Coleman said. "And it's definitely the case that there are technically savvy participants in Anonymous, whether it's system administrators who help set-up communications channels. Or there are some hackers who also do some hacking as well, they've been quite in the news. But, a lot of folks I just describe as sort of geeky types [who] hang online, they care about online issues such as censorship, copyright, piracy. There's also some people who are seasoned activists who have worked in other domains and are now working within Anonymous. And there's others who have entered politics for the first time."
History of Anonymous
So perhaps it's no surprise that Anonymous formed in that most easy of places to change and morph identities -- web forums. Specifically the "random" channel of 4chan, /b/. This is the forum that has brought the world lolcats and Rickrolling, two Internet memes that have gone mainstream and delighted millions. Yet, also on /b/, one of the first acts of Anonymous was to flood the Epilepsy Foundation’s website with flashing images and links to animated color fields, causing one woman to have a seizure.
In 2008 Anonymous began a worldwide protest against what they saw as Internet censorship when the Church of Scientology removed a video on YouTube featuring Tom Cruise. They then issued a press release and video, declaring a war on the Church of Scientology.
Anonymous then launched the denial of service attacks against the church. And for the first time the group did something offline, protesting (anonymously, of course) in Orlando, Santa Barbara, and Manchester, England. Eight days later, about 7,000 people turned out to protest in more than 93 cities worldwide.
During the Scientology protests the Guy Fawkes mask became a symbol of Anonymous. In the film V for Vendetta, based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore, thousands of people don the mask to become protesters against a fascist British government and then finally commit the act that Guy Fawkes tried to do in 1605, bomb parliament.
Since then Anonymous has led dozens of protests or hacks, almost always based around censorship.
One of the advantages of having such an amorphous membership is that it can be hard for law enforcement to track down and prosecute Anonymous members for illegal acts. However in 2010 more than 20 hackers affiliated with Anonymous were arrested in the U.S., U.K. and the Netherlands for an attack on PayPal, MasterCard and Visa when the companies froze WikiLeaks' accounts.
Anonymous has called for another BART protest on Monday, August 22.