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From Hacker Antics to Cyber-Vigilantism

The hacker collective Anonymous, long characterized by its commitment to an unregulated Internet and high-profile acts against governments and corporate entities guilty of limiting or censoring the Internet, has experienced a quiet public transformation over the past few months. No longer is Anonymous simply a bunch of computer programmers scattered across the world waging an ideological war for Internet freedom; rather, Anonymous is now the champion of bullied teens, the challenger of religious extremists and recognized as one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People.

On October 10, 2012, Amanda Todd, a Canadian high school student, committed suicide after several years of cyber-stalking by an unknown man. A month earlier, Todd had posted a 9-minute YouTube video in which she shuffled through a series of handwritten note cards that detailed her experience over the past three years. Within the Anonymous network, someone took notice of the circumstances surrounding Amanda Todd’s death and posted the name, address and personal details of the alleged cyber-stalker responsible for her suicide and, later, shared these findings with the police. While Anonymous was unable to act to prevent the death of Amanda Todd, the hacker collective was able to exert its own special brand of cyber—justice in the case of 15-year-old Kylie Kylem.

In November 2012, Kylie Kylem, an American high school student, and victim of cyber-bullying by several classmates, logged on to Twitter and tweeted that she was considering suicide. While several of her tormentors encouraged her harm herself, activists from Anonymous and the Rustle League came to Kylie’s assistance and engaged the cyber-bullies in the Internet equivalent of a street fight. In short order the cyber-bullies were begging for mercy from Anonymous and promising to leave Kylie in peace (Full details of the exchange can be found here).

Beyond their defense of teenage cyber-bullying victims, Anonymous has made their presence known in an alleged case of sexual assault in Steubenville, Ohio. During an August 2012 party, several members of the Steubenville High School football team allegedly witnessed and participated in the rape of an intoxicated underage girl. By December 2012, members of Anonymous, dissatisfied with the response of local law enforcement and believing that the community was shielding members of the football team from prosecution, released a web video that warned school officials and team members to expect the release of personal information if they failed to act swiftly. On January 1, 2013, Anonymous, dissatisfied with the response to their initial communication, launched “OpRedRoll” in order to prompt action and gain media attention. Specifically, KnightSec, an Anonymous-affiliated cell posted a “dox” – an investigative dossier – of key school and government officials involved in shielding Steubenville football players and 12-minute video of a former Steubenville high school student making obscene jokes about the incident.

Anonymous has also engaged in a virtual cyber-war with followers of theWestboro Baptist Church, which has a long history of protesting at funerals in order to garner media attention for their opposition to homosexuals and Jews, among others. After the tragic death of 20 elementary school students and 6 school employees at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, Westboro Baptist members indicated that they would protest the victims funerals. In response, Anonymous launched a denial of service (DDOS) attack against the Westboro Baptist Church website and posted a dox listing the names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses and even social security numbers of church members. Several Anonymous-affiliated Twitter accounts promised continued action against Westboro Baptist members because, as the Twitter account @YourAnonNews posted “The message is simple: Dont fuck with little kids. Especially their funerals.

Initially, Westboro Baptist members refused to be cowed by public condemnation or the actions of Anonymous; however, Westboro Baptist never carried out its threatened protests of Sandy Hook funerals. Perhaps in response to the Anonymous attack in December, Westboro Baptist announced that they would protest the funeral of online activist Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide on January 11, 2013. After another Anonymous-led effort against Westboro Baptist – codename “Operation Angel” -, the lawyer for Westboro Baptist informed local law enforcement that they would not protest Swartz’s funeral.

In the past four months, Anonymous has evolved from a straightforward collection of hackers focused on maintaining unregulated access to the Internet to a sort of web-based super cop dedicated to championing who it perceives as victims and punishing those it deems to be criminals. This shift in focus and tactics is profound. No longer is Anonymous confined to battles of and within the realm of the Internet; rather, Anonymous is clearly expanding its reach into the “real world”. What has remained consistent is that Anonymous is using its particular skill set in computer networks to create real action and consequences in the world outside the Internet. While there are serious questions concerning the legitimacy and efficacy of Anonymous’ application of justice, few can deny that this group of activists has found a way in which to create and enact change in the world.

Originally published by Anthropology News – Online

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