On Anonymous and Anonymity


Hacktivist collective Anonymous gained notoriety in the late 2000s and early 2010s through a number of high-profile and highly effective campaigns against targets as varied as the Church of Scientology, Monsanto and the Bay Area Rapid Transit service, or in support of movements and organisations including the Arab Spring uprisings, Occupy and Wikileaks. Whilst the collective was too diverse to be tied to a political ideology, their actions were characterised by a radical emphasis on collectivism over individualism, and they came to be seen as broadly allied with progressive causes and social justice. 

Although Anonymous themselves are no longer active, their legacy can be seen in the campaigns of other anonymous hacker groups such as Phineas Fisher. Phineas Fisher often try to force greater transparency on powerful corporate and state actors, as well as to hold them accountable for their abuses of power. Recent targets of Phineas Fisher have included oil companies, offshore banks and the Chilean military

Perhaps the greatest legacy of Anonymous, however, is in their role as champions of anonymity itself. They defended the right to anonymity not only as an obvious necessity for their activities, but also, as Biella Coleman states, so that citizens can “be the guardians of their own individuality, or determine for themselves how and when it is reduced into data packets”. It is a form of defiance against the mass surveillance and lack of transparency of those in power.

“While Anonymous has not put forward any programmatic plan to topple institutions or change unjust laws, it has made evading them seem easy and desirable. To those donning the Guy Fawkes mask associated with Anonymous, this—and not the commercialized, “transparent” social networking of Facebook—is the promise of the Internet, and it entails trading individualism for collectivism.”

– Biella Coleman Our Weirdness Is Free‘, triplecanopy

Threats to Anonymity

The right to anonymity, however, is under attack. Tools for protecting anonymity, such as VPNs or the Tor browser, are often portrayed as synonymous with criminal behaviours like hacking, drug-dealing or fraud. Meanwhile, recent examples in the USA, Brazil and Hong Kong show that governments around the world are employing ever more sophisticated and aggressive techniques to expose and punish whistleblowers and activists. Seeking anonymity is an increasingly radical act.

The recent Hong Kong protests have seen a fierce battle between protesters and government forces over the right to anonymity. Protesters have been targeted with facial recognition technology and, if recognised, face 10 years in prison for ‘illegal assembly’ as well as a series of extrajudicial attacks including doxxing, online harassment and physical violence. In their defence, protesters used masks (eventually banned), balaclavas, umbrellas and other items to obscure heir faces and remain anonymous. 

Protesters in Hong Kong protecting themselves and their anonymity, August 2019. Source: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

One high profile case centred around a woman who was wearing a balaclava, gas mask, goggles and a helmet labelled “don’t aim at protesters’ heads” in order to protect herself both physically and from the threat of identification. She was hospitalised and blinded by a ‘bean-bag round’ that police fired through her goggles. The police then attempted to de-anonymise her by searching through health records before they were stopped by an injunction. 

These types of tactics are often held up in the West as examples of tyrannical rule, but Western democracies are also engaged in this assault on anonymity for those seeking justice.

In 2019, the USA decided to indict Wikileaks’ Julian Assange with charges of espionage with a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison. This signals a new tactic in the battle against whistleblowers and transparency activists by targeting not only the whistleblowers themselves, but also the publishers of leaked material with draconian sentences.

Glenn Greenwald was charged with orchestrating hacking operations. Source: Getty Images

A similar approach was taken by the Brazilian government in an indictment made against the Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald for publishing material that exposed political corruption within the government’s anti-corruption ‘Lava Jato’ operation. Whilst the charges against Greenwald have been suspended by a judge, both of these actions are designed to have a chilling effect on anonymous whistleblowing, a vital tool in subjecting governments to public scrutiny. Moreover, as Christian Christensen points out, these actions are not limited to obvious would-be authoritarian presidents like Trump and Bolsonaro, but are indicative of a larger trend.

“We need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that—at least in terms of WikiLeaks and Assange—what we are seeing in 2019 from the Trump administration is significantly different from what we saw under Obama. It is well worth repeating the fact that, from 2009 to 2013, Obama prosecuted more people as whistleblowers under the 1917 Espionage Act than all former presidents combined. Let’s also remember that Chelsea Manning was tried and convicted under Obama, and spent huge periods of time in solitary confinement (even though her sentence was later commuted).”

Christian Christensen, Assange, Espionage, and the Cult of Personality

The Watchful Eye

These examples are linked to the increasingly pervasive forms of corporate and governmental surveillance that we are all subjected to. Greenwald was also the journalist who helped publish the Snowden leaks that exposed the systematic mass surveillance operations of the US government. Facial recognition technology and CCTV are not only used to track people in Hong Kong, but in countries across the world. We are all being monitored by our smartphones and other devices and both our online and offline data is being tracked by an array of private and state actors, a process that Couldry and Mejias refer to as ‘data colonialism’, and that Shoshana Zuboff calls ‘surveillance capitalism’. These mechanisms undermine choice, democracy and freedom, and anonymity is one of the last defences we have against them.  

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