“Targeting Anonymous and hacktivists amounts to targeting citizens for expressing their political beliefs.”
— Gabriella Coleman, anthropology professor at McGill University and author of an upcoming book about Anonymous, on a new report that British spies hit the hacker group with DDOS (distributed denial of service) attacks. The NBC News report, based on documents leaked by former U.S. government tech contractor Edward Snowden, says a unit of the GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) used the DDOS attacks to effectively take down IRC chat rooms used by Anonymous — along with, possibly, websites not connected to the activist hackers.
We’ve written about the actions of Anonymous many times, from its support of the Arab Spring to its online attacks on government agencies and corporations. The decentralized group has used DDOS, has taken over Twitter accounts, and more. Anonymous and its offshoots have targeted others’ political beliefs, and have taken down websites to protest the actions of a few while inconveniencing or possibly endangering unrelated parties. For example, the groups targeted PayPal for the company’s refusal to accept donations for whistleblower site WikiLeaks. (NBC News reports that the leaked documents indicate the spy unit’s tactics helped nab the thief of PayPal user information, and identify hackers of government sites.)
But Coleman told NBC News that it’s not right for governments to target protests: “Punishing thousands of people, who are engaging in their democratic right to protest, because a couple people committed vandalism is … an appalling example of overreacting in order to squash dissent.”
The former head of the U.S. government’s National Counterterrorism Center, who’s now an NBC News analyst, disagrees. “No one should be targeted for speech or thoughts, but there is no reason law enforcement officials should unilaterally declare law breakers safe in the online environment,” Michael Leiter said.
In an extended version of her argument, published by Wired, Coleman says: “The key difference … is that while those involved in Anonymous can and have faced their day in court for those tactics, the British government has not.”
Photo: A demonstrator wears a Guy Fawkes mask — which also is hacking group Anonymous’ mask of choice — during a protest against data preservation in Hanover, Germany, on Feb. 1. (Peter Steffen/AFP/Getty Images)