It's been denounced by NATO, targeted by the FBI, and subjected to dozens of frenzied editorials. Targets as varied as Bank of America, Sony, the Justice Department, and the government of Egypt have felt its wrath. Its trademark symbols have appeared everywhere from the streets of Cairo to Occupy Wall Street to the Polish parliament. For a group that sprang organically from an Internet forum normally devoted to anime cartoons and cat videos, the amorphous hacker/prankster collective known as "Anonymous" has become a surprisingly potent actor in global politics. But to understand the forces that make the group tick, let's look back to a time before SOPA and the Arab Spring and consider the strange story of one "Agent Pubeit."
On Jan. 14, 2009, an 18-year-old man emerged shirtless from the New York City subway system and walked through Times Square, heading toward the Scientology center on West 46th Street. The man was about to become the face -- and hairy chest -- of the Anonymous movement. If his skin looked a bit shiny, this wasn't a trick of the light; "Agent Pubeit" had been slathered in petroleum jelly. Toenail clippings and piles of -- to put it delicately -- non-cranial hair had been carefully stuck all over his back, chest, and arms.
The effect was obscene -- but then, according to a sizable number of "Anons" -- so was the Church of Scientology. No longer content with the pure prankery of their early days, such as bombarding a California student with pornography and pizza deliveries for having the temerity to run a "No Cussing Club," Anonymous found in Scientology an adversary that provided a moralistic dimension for the group's antics. Anons argued that the church was, in fact, a dangerous cult that brainwashed its overcharged members and that its tax-exempt status should be revoked.
Throughout 2008, Anonymous's online campaign led to offline protests against Scientology around the world, in which the (mostly) young and (mostly) male Anons showed up with signs and wearing their signature Guy Fawkes masks from the movie V for Vendetta. Other Anons flooded the Scientology website with data, shutting it down for several days.
But nothing could have prepared Scientology for Agent Pubeit, who entered the 46th Street center and began, in the immortal words of the New York Daily News, to "'desecrate' the Church of Scientology with a wacky weapon -- Vaseline." Agent Pubeit touched everything he could put his greasy body on and then walked out of the center and into Anonymous infamy. A fellow Anon had followed him through Midtown with a camera to record the inevitable YouTube video that would accompany his exploits; the clip has been viewed 164,000 times.
The broader campaign against Scientology garnered Anonymous its first mainstream media attention, but it was the Pubeit operation that perfectly embodied the group's schizophrenic embrace of both morality and pranksterism. Anonymous routinely veers sharply among earnest actions against censorship and repression, online vigilantism, outright cybercrime, and pranks -- the more outrageous, the better. When Fox News anchor Bill O'Reilly angered Anonymous in 2008, for instance, the group hacked his website in protest -- but the spat didn't end there. FBI documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show that some Anons couldn't resist using a credit card stolen in the attack to send "penile enlargement" products to one of the talkshow host's female fans; they then sent out pictures of -- in the FBI's own words -- "three men performing oral" to everyone in the woman's electronic address book.