Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous and the Global Cyber Insurgency
* Book: We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous and the Global Cyber Insurgency. Parmy Olson.
"Journalist Parmy Olson spent a year researching Anonymous, the loosely defined hacker collective that's antagonized everyone from the Church of Scientology to PayPal to the CIA. Her new book, We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous and the Global Cyber Insurgency, follows the group from its inception on 4chan's anarchic /b/ forum, through its feud with Scientology and its informal alliance with WikiLeaks, to the recent arrests of several high-level members. Along the way, she shows Anonymous as a complex organization with multiple motivations, from hacktivism to the simple pursuit of sweet, sweet "lulz."
Conducted by Tony Hawk for The Verge.
"Anonymous is known for being a nebulous, secretive group, where members adopt aliases and, in the case of at least one hacker, Kayla, weave elaborate, fictitious backstories. How did you go about investigating the group, and separating fact from legend?
It wasn't easy, and there was no hard and fast method. As I state in a note at the front of the book, I tried to focus on sources who I deemed more reliable to gather information, then corroborate from there by checking those claims with other sources. For example, when I heard from one good source that botnets — not a "hive" of thousands of volunteers — were the real reason why Anonymous could successfully DDoS PayPal and MasterCard, I checked this out with another key player in Anonymous, who confirmed it, as well as with Panda Securities, an IT security firm who'd been researching the Operation Payback attacks. Though many people I spoke to wanted to remain literally anonymous, I've also listed all my source notes at the back of the book. (http://www.theverge.com/2012/6/7/3070945/parmy-olson-inside-anonymous-five-minutes-on-the-verge)
""The true power of Anonymous is the ability to social engineer both its supporters and the world around it.""
Like everyone I had my suspicions of Kayla from the get go, but was enthralled by the mythology of a 16 year old super-hacker-Girl-With-a-Dragon-Tattoo and who knows what else. It became clear as time went on that Kayla probably wasn't who she claimed, so in online interviews, I played along with the story. I could still get some details on her hacks, and methods for staying hidden and a sense of who the real Kayla might be by listening to her backstories. The latter was weirdly fascinating. Kayla for me exemplified the true power of Anonymous, which is the ability to social engineer both its supporters and the world around it. People wanted to believe in the mythology of Kayla as much as they did the power and significance of Anonymous itself.
What's the most surprising thing you discovered?
Probably when I saw the YouTube video (since deleted) of an IRC chat between a representative of WikiLeaks and the LulzSec hackers, in which the camera then panned up to show Julian Assange sitting at a laptop opposite. This was the moment when LulzSec had what they believed was their first discussion with WikiLeaks in June 2011. Topiary, the group's mouthpiece, assumed it was a troll at first, but a tweet from the official WikiLeaks Twitter feed, and then a second video of Assange convinced him and the rest of the group otherwise. According to another former core member of LulzSec, certain members of the group went on to try and gain access to Icelandic government servers, and failed when the server didn't respond correctly, and the hack was called off lest they be detected. They also located government mail servers, but didn't attack then. As with everything, the hackers got distracted by other things; it was an incredibly busy time for LulzSec. The book notes that we can't say with 100% certainty that these discussions were not part of an elaborate troll by a member of Assange's inner circle — an early chapter in the book describes the organizer of the LulzSec / WikiLeaks meeting as being a liar. But that video was jaw-dropping for the LulzSec hackers at the time, and for me too.
In the book you focus on three members of Lulzsec — Topiary, Sabu, and Kayla — all since arrested. What do the stories and personalities of these three show us about the larger phenomenon of Anonymous?
I've already mentioned how Kayla, to me, exemplifies Anonymous' power in social engineering the world around it and sometimes its own members. Kayla was laid back, a free spirit who didn't care to align "herself" with anything too closely. And incredibly smart. What intrigued me about the person behind Kayla was their ability to manipulate their character, mannerisms, and backstories online, creating a whole new identity. In one way this is just a byproduct of the Internet, a place where we can be anyone we want to be. But Anonymous could amplify this with cause and justification, and that's where Sabu and Topiary come in. Each was able to find not only camaraderie through Anonymous, but a purpose too: Sabu as a self-styled revolutionary hacktivist who wanted to change the world around him, and Topiary as a whip-smart entertainer who wanted to make people laugh." (http://www.theverge.com/2012/6/7/3070945/parmy-olson-inside-anonymous-five-minutes-on-the-verge)
- Follow her on Twitter at @parmy.