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Review: Gabriella Coleman, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy – the many faces of Anonymous

Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy – the many faces of Anonymous, by Gabriella Coleman. Verso Books. 2014

The Politics of Open Science, by Alessandro Delfanti. Pluto Press, 2014

Hardly a day passes without some news of hacking in the headlines. Somebody hacks into a bank’s systems, governments hack into email servers routinely, the North Koreans or a disgruntled ex-employee hack into Sony’s systems, Islamic State hacks into US media-company Twitter accounts and into military online media accounts, Anonymous hacks into Islamic State’s Facebook pages. For many, perhaps most, hearing and reading such news, computer hacking is arcane, mysterious and disruptive. But “hacking” has much wider uses, referring to cobbling technical solutions collectively or to small-scale fixing and assembling. And in computer hacking, there are good guys and bad guys, or white hats and black hats, and many shades of grey.

“All information wants to be free,” was the hackers’ slogan two decades ago, and that is not so bad as a starting point. Gabriella Coleman takes us into the world of the white hats aligned with the loose collective that is Anonymous, and seeks to persuade us that their “hacktivism” is valid and valuable. She has immersed herself deeply in their virtual and physical company and – as is the temptation of such explorations – she has gone native, from anthropologist to apologist. Coleman has advised, assisted and admonished Anonymous in various circumstances. She has acted as an academically-accredited expert source on hacking and on Anonymous in particular. In this role, she has provided cover for Anonymous, whose code prohibits those involved from acting as public spokespersons.

Coleman brings to light the paradoxes of a movement that wants information to be free, except about itself, and that shuns the media, but wishes for media attention for the spectacles it organises. But she likes Anonymous, and many of its individual activists, and she wants us to like them too. She appreciates their absurdist aesthetic, their playful enjoyment of the “chaotic thrill of entertainment and anarchy”. She defends them against stereotyping as asocial nerds or precocious geeks, and then introduces us to a succession of highly educated late-teens whose social life appears to be led almost entirely at a computer screen.

Part of why we should like Anonymous, in Coleman’s view, is that they are socially progressive, and they use their technical skills to relevant political and social ends. Indeed, it is easy to sympathise with them when they pitch themselves against the obscurantist Church of Scientology – and it is in that campaign that Anonymous was born. But Coleman probably overstates their influence on the first manifestation of the 2011 Arab spring in Tunisia. And she certainly stretches a point when, in her concluding chapter, she links Anonymous with “the principle of hope” set out by Ernst Bloch (incorrectly identified as a “Frankfurt School philosopher”).

When making the case for Anonymous’s radicalism, Coleman returns several times to the example of Irish student Donncha O’Carroll (also O’Cearbhaill, in the Irish form), one of the few leading Anonymous figures who is named. While still in his teens he was being reported in international media as one of the top five hackers in the world, in the FBI’s view. Coleman explains his radicalisation in part through the fact that his father was in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and served time in prison – details interesting enough to be given twice in the book. To be a member of the IRA into the 1980s and 1990s, never mind to be the son of a member, is not necessarily a mark of radicalism. O’Carroll senior is an independent county councillor with a strongly localist orientation. O’Carroll junior tweets in his own name (@DonnchaC), mainly retweeting from other hackers – including another central character in this book, also ‘out’ in his own name, Mustafa Al-Bassam – on technical and freedom-of-expression issues, and occasionally referring to wider political questions.

In O’Carroll’s sub-community, the use of DDoS (Distributed Denial of Services) attacks that close down large systems appears no longer to be an accepted tactic. Coleman acknowledges that Anonymous actions may have caused collateral damage to innocent bystanders, but in mitigation she recounts the internal debates in Anonymous circles. One episode is chronicled at length: the actions of Anonmyous in 2010 in support of Wikileaks, following their massive release of information from US government and agency emails. When credit cards companies and PayPal withdrew transactional services from Wikileaks, Anonymous launched attacks on PayPal. In so doing, they blocked many fully legitimate payments through this service. They also made available to tens of thousands of computer-users the tools for DDoS.  Later, however, a solo run by an Anonymous activist caused consternation in the ranks and the mood for DDoS seems to have shifted.

In some of these debates Coleman has intervened directly. She describes some of the dilemmas of Anonymous as “moral pretzels”, but she might, for example, have given more attention to the pretzel of anonymity itself. It can be seen as an increasingly unnecessary evil of the internet, where things are said behind the cloak of anonymity that would not be said openly, thus frequently perverting online discourse.

Her accounts of Anonymous actions and their preparation include extensive and numerous excerpts of online exchanges. These are conducted over IRC (Internet Relay Chat) in little bursts of text like SMS messages, replete with the argot and abbreviations of the community. They make for difficult reading, and Coleman rarely provides a gloss on them, much less a rationale for quoting verbatim rather than paraphrasing.

Coleman repeatedly tells us of her excitement at being close to these exchanges and to the events they related to. She admits that she ignored her family on holiday in California, while she spent hours on end poring over online conversations. She writes herself into many stories, writing breathlessly on how she met individual Anonymous people. It is not enough for her to say that she received an email, but rather “one day, an email landed in my inbox”. She tells us she had sweat on her forehead in anticipation of meeting an Anonymous, and later on the same page, sweat “freezing half-way down my back”.

From all of the detail, however, a picture emerges of an underground movement that has grown randomly, that is organised loosely and operates effectively. What might appear chaotic to the outsider, says Coleman, is characterised by many microstructures. She refers to cabals, but perhaps misses a better analogy in the political world, that of cells. In many militant and political underground movements, members join cells, without necessarily knowing who is in other cells, where they are, or how many there are.

Gabriella Coleman holds an unusually titled chair of Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University in Montreal, and she provides an endorsement for Delfanti’s exploration of biohacking, a world of open labs and open-source assembly of organisms. His is a short but dense treatise – based on a PhD dissertation – with several case studies, including that of the scientist-entrepreneur Craig Venter. With a case like that for reference, Delfanti has to develop a careful analysis of the contradictions of openness, capable of being espoused by economic conservatives as well as social radicals. “All information wants to be free”, he reminds us, can also refer to the free market.

 

Brian Trench is a science communication researcher and trainer based in Dublin, Ireland