The word hacker connotes both the most intriguing and the most frightening aspects of modern technology. Recent news stories trumpet the ability of hackers to disrupt the flow of information and services necessary for free markets and functioning democracies. Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that hackers linked to the Chinese military have carried out revenge attacks on media outlets critical of the Chinese government, engaged in high-level corporate espionage, and probed for vulnerabilities in crucial parts of America’s infrastructure.
But communities of grassroots hackers have at times been praised for their exposés.Some news reports even suggest that the most famous of these hacktivist collectives, Anonymous, published information that helped a security firm trace the recent activity of Chinese hackers back to the military. The loosely assembled hacker collective and its slightly more cohesive spinoff, LulzSec, is the subject of Parmy Olson’s new book “We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency.”
Olson, a Forbes journalist based in San Francisco, describes the how, why and who behind some of Anonymous’ most notorious cyber attacks, including how, at the beginning of the Arab Spring, the global group enlisted Tunisian hackers to take down their country’s government. She also details how Anonymous hacked the Church of Scientology as punishment for their demand that a video of Tom Cruise at a church event be pulled from YouTube. Both incidents highlight what Olson sees as Anonymous’ interest in using its cyber-skills to satisfy a sense of truth, justice and the free flow of information. But she also describes Anonymous’ darker side, on display when it hacked into Gawker’s computers and subsequently published the private account details of 1.3 million Gawker users as punishment for the blog’s decision to publicly criticize the group.
Olson also discusses how some of Anonymous’ most talented hackers were duped into thinking they were working for Wikileaks, only to discover later that the cyber vulnerabilities they thought they were passing onto Julian Assange were really going to a rogue operator who may have sold them on the black market to the highest bidder. The embarrassing incident highlights how, in the shadowy world of hacking, it can be difficult to tell the difference between a crusade and a scam.
Ultimately Olson’s book should give pause both to those who hold up hackers as democracy’s savior and those who decry them as democracy’s mortal enemy. While Anonymous and LulzSec have pulled off some high-profile hacks, “We Are Anonymous” suggests that the group lacks discipline and an effective top-down structure. This means that Anonymous is subject to petty squabbles and infighting, which Olson describes at length. It also means that the group would be unlikely to systematically prepare for cyberwarfare at the behest of a national government. Still, hacktivists remain a force to be reckoned with and will likely remain so as long as there are cybersecurity vulnerabilities to exploit.