Books

Gabriella Coleman
Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy

You’ll recall: we were chatting to our friends on Skype and putting pictures of our kids up on Facebook, and logging on to websites that reflected our tastes in shopping, news, porn, sports, politics, whatever. The world at our fingertips. We could phone friends anywhere on earth and see their faces. The internet had turned us into global citizens. You’ll remember that halcyon world of long, long ago (say about 2008), but if for some reason you don’t, fear not: there will be digital records of it. There is always hope. Nothing is ever lost.

Sure there were crazy geeks in garages and grossly untidy bedrooms who claimed they could crack the Pentagon’s systems, but what did that have to do with us? I found a great Dolce & Gabbana jacket on eBay for just 50 bucks! I bought a ticket to Tokyo online, without talking to anyone! I found true love on a dating site! Hacktivism was way out there, a planet where boffins on both sides played their games of zeros and ones, stalking each other while we slept. And meanwhile our metadata (the mysterious substrate of modern existence that apparently defies all explanation) was piling up on servers in places nobody had ever heard of, and gathering enormous value.

Most of us know what happened next. Enter WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, Bradley/Chelsea Manning, Ed Snowden and the NSA, the whole shebang. We read about it online. On phones that, we now know, were a lot smarter than we were. Ask Angela Merkel.

The saga of how these hitherto largely separate galaxies – the personal and the organisational, the public and the private – collided in meta-space is nothing less than the story of our times, reshaping our societies, our relationships, our sense of rational order, our basic identities as humans.

The most visceral response to this upheaval, according to Gabriella Coleman, a McGill University authority on social media movements, has come from the shadowy and erratic collective of hackers, pranksters and social activists operating as “Anonymous”. With its Guy Fawkes masks, Anonymous came to public attention in 2003 as a loose group of internet trolls harassing other users for amusement. The trickster badge came early, although their invasion of the online game Habbo Hotel with a swastika and racial slurs created a far darker image. “Internet Motherfuckery”, one member recalled it. Media and intelligence agencies watched closely.

In 2008, Anonymous went after the Church of Scientology, the first of its “ops” with militant objectives, followed by cyber attacks on PayPal’s refusal to handle payments for WikiLeaks, protests over internet censorship in the Arab Spring uprisings, and support for the Occupy movement.

Anonymous also became a physical entity, staging rallies and getting its grinning masks on global television. “The hunt for a spokesperson, a leader, a representative, was in vain,” Coleman notes, “until the state entered the fray and began arresting hackers.” A series of prosecutions helped turn the movement into the quintessential anti-brand brand, “the popular face of unrest around the globe”.

Coleman claims to have got closer than anyone else to the operations of Anonymous, its chat rooms and major players (known as “Anons”). Her privileged status pays off in lively encounters with the movement and, more interestingly, with agencies tracking down its hardcore offshoot, “LulzSec”, noted for audacious, mocking hacks on the CIA, News Corp, the US senate and other high-profile sites. Pranksterism or cyberwarfare? At the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Coleman learns CSIS and Anonymous have one thing in common: intense distrust of the media, while both use it to publicise their cause.

Coleman provides enthusiastic accounts of the tricksters, whose tag-names – Sabu, tflow, Anachaos – deliberately or subconsciously reflect the gaming culture that’s central to the Anonymous ethos: go forth and attack, have fun, win points. But given the uber-contemporary context of the group’s activities, parallels with classical trickster models such as “the mercurial Hermes and the bacchanalian Dionysus” and the darker channels of African and Caribbean lore seem academic distractions. Throw in Puck from Shakespeare and it’s a long journey back to the 21st-century digital realm. Coleman tackles her daunting subject – “the vast and intricate geography fabricated by Anonymous activists” – with vigour and impressive research but seems unsure how to scope it, from what angle and what distance. Admittedly, the topic itself is amorphous. Her politics are clear enough: “For the most part,” she declares, Anonymous is “a force for good in the world”.

One Anon Twitter account screwed up on the Ferguson riots in Missouri, wrongly identifying a white policeman it claimed killed the unarmed black youth Michael Brown. Anonymous has lately been cyber-attacking the Ku Klux Klan. Digital warriors or online vigilantes? Where we stand on groups such as Anonymous says much about society’s response to activism but also to its sense of security. If customers queue for days to buy a new iPhone to replace a year-old one, clearly the embrace of technology remains strong, even while trust in government and big business declines. Coleman’s dense survey is peppered with questions about legality and criminality versus privacy, which essentially boil down to the big one: in an increasingly digitised world, how much of our identity are we prepared to surrender, to whom, and to what end?

For all its teenage flakiness and tomfoolery, Anonymous opened the door to a dark world, one most of us previously assumed existed at the fringes of our lives, not in the very centre of things. Pioneers, perhaps childish ones, but due in part to Anonymous, and those who followed, suspicions are increasingly in order. And healthy scepticism would include ongoing study of the group itself.  NK

Verso, 452pp, $35

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 6, 2014 as "Gabriella Coleman, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: NK