Who Was That Masked Man?

With a mixture of righteous indignation and outrageous prankery, the hacker collective Anonymous has emerged as a surprisingly potent actor in global politics. But what do they actually want, and how should governments respond?

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.

The most important single thing to know about the group is that it's not actually a "group" at all. There is no leader, there are no members, and there are no dues. No single person speaks for Anonymous, and no coordinating council drafts manifestos. Predictably, the result looks like chaos from the outside; even the group's many "press releases" can be written by anyone and often propose crazy plans of actions that are quickly shouted down by others. (An Anon once proposed Operation WakeUp, for instance: "Simply Wake Up on March 9th and know, the world is one --think about this on March 9th. We are together on this planet." The idea went nowhere.)

Even today, the group has no single website, Twitter account, or chat room. Anonymous's disparate factions don't always coexist peacefully. Internecine arguments repeatedly break out between the Anons simply in it for the "lulz" -- laughs -- and the more earnest "moralfags" who see the group's shadowy army as a force for progress and freedom.

Anonymous emerged gradually from the morass of 4chan, an almost-anything-goes image board that discards the convention of named accounts common on most Internet forums. Instead, everyone posts as "Anonymous"; it's the content, not a name, that matters. While much of what happens on 4chan is little more than the harmless celebration of randomness for its own sake -- it's also the birthplace of such now-ubiquitous Internet tropes as LOLCats and Rickrolling -- some of the activities took on a more aggressive edge. The people who gathered on 4chan's infamous "/b/ board" -- the most unfiltered of the site's forums --  to prank or harass others gradually organized themselves into forces outside the site, forces that gradually took the name "Anonymous" and made it their own. By 2008, the Anonymous collective had forged a strong sense of itself.

In operations, as in communications, Anonymous follows a simple model: Anyone can propose anything. The measure of success is simply whether other Anons join in. Want to hack Muammar al-Qaddafi's websites? Take down MasterCard? Wipe out a child-porn haven? Put out the word and start doing it. The result has been a dazzling series of "ops" against everyone from the government of Sweden to right-wing billionaires David and Charles Koch to the strategic consulting firm Stratfor.

Such wide-ranging operations might seem almost comical -- and many have little effect -- but when the Anonymous hive gets prodded, the prodder usually finds himself covered with bee stings and begging for mercy. After several payment processors stopped handling donations for WikiLeaks, for instance, Anonymous attacked -- and overwhelmed -- websites for Paypal, MasterCard, Visa, and PostFinance. In 2010, a controversial antipiracy lawyer in Britain had his website knocked offline, his e-mails taken and then released to the world -- an act that eventually led to the lawyer's bankruptcy and to recent professional sanctions. More recently, on Jan. 19, the group took down websites for the FBI and the Department of Justice in retaliation for the arrest and shutdown of file-sharing site Megaupload. The pranksters have steadily become "hacktivists" -- and their target list is growing.

Most famously, a subset of Anons infiltrated security firm HBGary Federal in early 2011 after CEO Aaron Barr claimed he was about to expose the group's top "leaders" to the FBI. The retaliatory hacks were complete, taking control of the company's website, infiltrating its mail server and Barr's Twitter account, and Anonymous released the company's classified security work to the world. This little bit of cyber-vigilantism paid unexpected dividends: Barr had also been involved with dodgy plans to keep tabs on labor unions and to attack WikiLeaks, among other things. The sordid saga ended with Barr's firing, the company closing, and comedian Stephen Colbert commenting, "To put this in hacker terms, Anonymous is a hornet's nest, and Barr said, 'I'm going to stick my penis in that thing.'"

These sorts of dramatic exploits, and the sheer amount of press they generate, have fueled the Anonymous sense of sitting on something politically powerful. It's summed up neatly in the five-phrase Anonymous calling card:


Part of the appeal of Anonymous is the comic-book-style mythology in which it has cloaked itself: the projection of invisibility, the claim to omnipresence, the almost shocking sense of omnipotence. As one Anonymous "press release" put it when going after the "God Hates Fags" protestors of the Westboro Baptist Church:

"We, the collective super-consciousness known as ANONYMOUS - the Voice of Free Speech & the Advocate of the People - have long heard you issue your venomous statements of hatred, and we have witnessed your flagrant and absurd displays of inimitable bigotry and intolerant fanaticism. We have always regarded you and your ilk as an assembly of graceless sociopaths and maniacal chauvinists & religious zealots, however benign, who act out for the sake of attention & in the name of religion...

"Should you ignore this warning, you will meet with the vicious retaliatory arm of ANONYMOUS: We will target your public Websites, and the propaganda & detestable doctrine that you promote will be eradicated; the damage incurred will be irreversible, and neither your institution nor your congregation will ever be able to fully recover."

But despite the group's mythology, its members aren't always hard to find -- especially now that the world's great powers have taken notice.

Last year, a NATO report from the Britain's Lord Jopling pointed to the HBGary Federal attacks and warned that Anonymous might soon go after government targets more directly. But the report expressed confidence that the longer Anonymous existed, "the more likely countermeasures will be developed, implemented, the groups will be infiltrated, and perpetrators prosecuted." (Anonymous claimed to have hacked NATO and taken a gigabyte of documents in retaliation.) Indeed, Anonymous chat rooms are filled with jokes about who in any particular channel might be a "Fed."

There was reason to be nervous. Several months after the attacks on PayPal and Visa, the FBI executed 40 search warrants across the United States. The effect on the young targets was immediate; they took to chat rooms and Internet forums to post pictures of busted-in front doors and accounts of the searches. "The FBI showed up at my door with a search warrant for any electronic devices that may have been used in the attack," wrote one. "I'm not retarded, I invoked my 5th amendment rights and didn't say anything so now they are taking everything. Yes, I'm f**king dumb." In July 2011, the FBI picked up 14 Americans for alleged involvement in the PayPal attacks, while police arrested five more people overseas -- including two believed to be high-profile Anons: "Tflow" and "Topiary." The pair turned out to be 16 and 18 years old, respectively.

Local police have been happy to get involved, too. In the Agent Pubeit case, the New York City police used Scientology security tapes to find and arrest the prankster and his cameraman a few days after their stunt; both were charged with hate crimes.

The question of how to respond to Anonymous's increasingly political activities is a perplexing one for governments. Many of the group's activities are criminal and, especially where fraud and damage are involved, should be prosecuted. But sentences can be too harsh. For instance, an Iowa State student joined the online attacks against Scientology's website from his dorm room on January 24, 2008 -- a full five days after they began. Scientology claimed that it spent $20,000 in extra funds on a security company that helped stem the floods of data. While investigating the case, federal agents tracked down and arrested the student, charged him with federal crimes and took him all the way to Los Angeles to answer for them. The student eventually pled guilty to a single count, was imprisoned for a year, and, despite the fact that hundreds or thousands of people may have taken part in the attack, was ordered to pay the full $20,000 in restitution.

Such harsh measures can be counterproductive. Despite their anti-authoritarian streak and juvenile tendencies, a significant faction of Anons stand for values supported by many democracies, such as freedom of speech, an open Internet, and government transparency -- and they have a hatred for repressive regimes that would kindle the heart of the staunchest neoconservative. As one Anon put it during the group's electronic attacks on the Libyan government last year, "Anonymous is willing to bring its help to the brave people of Libya... We, the people, will not remain silent while dictators fire upon their citizens." The ideology can be inconsistent and is often unformed, as it always will be in a "group" like Anonymous; the irony of shutting down websites you don't agree with in the name of free speech and transparency seems to be lost on many of them.

But Anons tend to be young, their views still forming and their political thinking in flux. While governments can hardly countenance disorder and vigilantism on the Internet, they might more productively reach out, at least rhetorically, to Anonymous and similar movements, emphasizing shared values and encouraging innovative online dissent and activism through legal channels. The current strategy of mere opposition and tough federal penalties is unlikely to shut down a burgeoning international movement, and it's no way to bring an upcoming generation of Internet activists into the political process.

Engagement makes sense simply as a practical matter. Anonymous's ideals and symbolism continue to spread, even entering the governments that have opposed them. When Anonymous began ginning up opposition to a new intellectual property treaty called the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement after the European Union signed the agreement in late January, a bloc of Polish MPs objected to the secret way that the deal had been crafted (and with good reason). When the legislators decided to protest on the floor of parliament, what symbol did they hold up before their faces? Paper versions of the Guy Fawkes mask beloved by Anonymous.

Groups like Anonymous speak, sometimes in extreme form, to real demands of the "Internet generation": a more balanced copyright policy, more transparency, less censorship. Such demands can be seen in the fact that Swedish "Pirate Party" has members in the European Parliament. They can be seen in the massive recent Internet backlash against the Stop Online Piracy Act, where even Wikipedia shut down its English-language site for the day. Governments ignore the common concerns being expressed here at their peril.

None other than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has warned against efforts to "impose a system, cemented in a global code, that expands control over Internet resources, institutions, and content and centralizes that control in the hands of the government." Clinton would no doubt prefer to think that established human rights groups or dissident bloggers are in the vanguard against this control. But sometimes it's greasy avenging angels like Agent Pubeit.



The League of Extraordinarily Bureaucratic Gentlemen

Can DC Comic’s new comic book series make the U.N. look cool -- or at least effective?

How life imitates art -- or graphic art, at least. In DC Comics' new series, Justice League International, governments are going bankrupt, the masses are out in the street protesting, terrorists are blowing up state institutions, and the United Nations' credibility is in tatters.

Sound familiar? It's only natural that comic strips reflect the real world, or at least our worst fears about it. This comic version of life at Turtle Bay provides a glimpse of a future where the world's declining superpower, the United States, appears to have lost its seat on the Security Council and a triumvirate headed by Britain, China, and Russia are calling the shots -- but the rest of the world isn't listening.

Even the superheroes follow a moral compass that routinely swerves off course. "People have lost faith in their own governments, and by extension, us," Andre Briggs, the comic strip head of U.N. intelligence, tells the Global Security group -- a three-person Security Council headed by Chinese, Russian, and British officials.

"Confidence in every level of authority is at an all-time low. Every government, and by extension, every law enforcement agency and security forces, is woefully under-funded and lacking resources," says Briggs. "We believe it's time for the United Nations to assemble its own team, representing select nations, uniquely equipped to overcome those issues."

The United Nations has had a long, though intermittent, history in the world of action heroes, providing comic book artists with a symbol for breaking with the propagandistic and nationalist themes that marked the Golden Age of war comics during World War II, says Laura Hudson, the editor in chief of ComicsAlliance, a major online magazine on comic culture. "Modern comic book writers tend to be a progressive lot, and less inclined to infuse superhero books with the idea of American exceptionalism."

The U.N. formed a backdrop for many of the themes of nuclear holocaust at the height of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry and the post-Cold War proliferation of nuclear weapons. In the late 1980s, the Batman's nemesis, the Joker, acquired a nuclear weapon and sold it to Arab terrorists. He then established contact with the Ayatollah Khomeini, who appointed him as his U.N. envoy, granting him diplomatic immunity for his crimes. "He subsequently gives a speech to the General Assembly about how the world fails to show enough respect for Iran while filling the room with toxic laughing gas," said Hudson. "His plan is foiled by Superman and Batman, and he later disappears. I am making none of this up."

But it was The Justice League International, which got its start in the late 1980s as an offshoot of the Justice League -- the latter led by All-American superheroes like Superman (though he was born on Krypton), Batman, and Wonder Woman -- that placed the U.N. at the center of the action. Acting under the auspices of the United Nations, a new multinational corps of superheroes tapped into the possibilities for international cooperation unleashed by the demise of the Soviet Union. It even included a Soviet superhero, Rocket Red.

"Once upon a time there was the Justice League of America," read the mission statement to the comic's launch in late 1987. "But that was another era, when the world could afford borders and boundaries, when heroes could claim national loyalties and feel justified in their claims. But in today's world there's no longer room for borders and boundaries. The walls between nations have to fall if our planet is to survive."

That might have been a bit ahead of its time -- "globalism" didn't even enter the Oxford English Dictionary until 1986. So Justice League International was shelved in 1994, after a stop-start run of only 36 issues. But it was re-launched in September 2011, tapping into the global crisis of confidence in the ability of governments to solve the world's financial and security troubles. It's release -- part of a re-launch of 52 comic strips introduced by DC Comics -- comes at a time when comic superheroes have been distancing themselves from the United States.

In April 2011, Superman -- fretting that his close association with the United States had undercut his ability to defend anti-government demonstrators in Iran -- went to the United Nations to renounce his American citizenship. "Truth, justice and the American way -- it's not enough anymore. The world's too small. Too connected," Superman tells the U.S. president's national security adviser. "I'm tired of having my actions construed as instruments of U.S. policy," he adds. Superman may not be a fan of American exceptionalism, but he's still inclined to go it alone.

The somewhat second-tier stars of Justice League International, however, form a motley crew of multinational superheroes, who have been hired by the United Nations to confront threats to mankind that conventional armies and law enforcement agencies can't handle.

They include an updated version of the Russian superhero, Gavril Ivanovich, or Rocket Red; a Chinese action figure, Zhifu Fang, or August General in Iron; a British super-heroine, Dora Leigh Godiva, who uses her superhuman hair to attract potential mates and to foil villains; Vixen, or Mari Jiwe McaCabe, from somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa; Norway's Tora Olfsdotter, or Ice; and the Brazil's Beatriz Bonilla Da Costa, better known as Fire. Led by an American -- Booster Gold, a coiffed, self-centered shill for corporations that sell beer and other products -- the superheroes quickly stumble into a losing battle with extraterrestrial robots bent on the destruction of the planet. Briggs has selected Booster because his expertise in public relations will help sell a weary and skeptical public on the superhero force.

After a bungled start, Booster Gold pulls the team together and with the help of Guy Gardner; the Green Lantern, who initially refuses to serve under the Booster; and Batman, who is barred from joining Justice League International, they prevail over the space-born Samarai, Peraxxus, who is seeking to harness the robots to suck out all of earth's resources for resale to other alien conglomerates.

Booster's motives are "pure," says Dan Jurgens, the comic book's chief author, but the character is also drawn by the celebrity and the endorsement deals that come with being a superhero. "He's the kind of guy who says ‘'I'll do what's good and what's right but if I can pick up an endorsement for a particular brand of macaroni that's great, 'cause that's how I make my living,' says Jurgens, Booster's creator. "I think we've all grown a bit distrustful. And that's what this book is all about."

Jurgens says that while he, personally, has been favorably disposed to the United Nations he sought to portray the world organization as morally ambiguous, neither intrinsically good nor bad, and a target of intense affection and revulsion, much as it is in the real world. Protesters ring the Washington, D.C.-based Hall of Justice, which has been leased to the United Nations, with placards denouncing the organization and criticizing the superheroes for joining forces with it. "Heroes following the U.N.'s marching orders? Bunch of sell outs," says one protester.

"We came here cuz the U.N. took over the Hall of Justice," says another, before conspiring with a group of anti-U.N. terrorists who blow up the Hall of Justice. "It's ours. A symbol! If we can't have it, no one should."

The decision to place the United States in the background was also intentional. "Within this country we're probably arrogant enough to think that the U.N. should be an American-controlled institution. I don't have that thought," says Jurgens.

But the U.N.'s foreign leaders are hardly heroic. In selling his plan for a superhero brigade to the U.N. big-wigs, Briggs cynically assures them that any benefit of enlisting the support of these hired guns will outweigh the risks. If they succeed in their mission, they will hopefully restore luster to the tarnished reputation of the organization. "If they fail," Briggs notes, "We blame them."

Yes, it's just a comic book, but the story finds many real world parallels -- from the decision to place a U.N. triumvirate at the head of the organization (the Soviets pressed for that in the 1940s) to the risks of sending an ill-prepared, poorly resourced peacekeeping mission on an assignment. Indeed, the very idea of assembling a nimble force of internationals do-gooders to confront the global threats has deep roots at the United Nations.

President Harry Truman floated the idea of placing international forces at the disposal of the United Nations to confront threats to global peace. Ever since, the U.N. has flirted with the establishment of a lean, rapid reaction force that could spring into action when a crisis first emerges. But the U.N. membership has ultimately refused to allow the U.N. secretariat to create its own independent force out of fear it could not be controlled. And the U.N. comic book leadership seems to share those concerns. "I remain skeptical. This might well blow up in our face," China's representative on the global steering committee, Chairwoman Bao, tells Briggs. "We have flirted with this notion before. We keep saying no."

Like her real world counterparts in the Chinese mission to the United Nations -- which joined Russia in vetoing a resolution on Syria and blocked the reappointment of a German arms expert who discovered illicit Chinese ammunition in Darfur -- Chairman Bao has little qualms about saying no. She vetoes the selection of the Justice League International's most able superhero, Batman, on the grounds that he would be impossible to manage. "I thought the idea was a team we could control," Bao says. "No."

Not to be outdone, the security group's Russian delegate blocks the nomination of Plastic Man -- "too whacko" and the Blue Beetle. "Nyet. No rookies." In classic U.N. fashion, their objections to authorizing the force are overcome by securing jobs for Chinese and Russian superheroes on the new Justice League.

"As long as Russian sinew and glory are represented I vote yes. Da!" The British rep also hints at the trade off when she welcomes the selection of the British superheroine Godiva. "Trying to buy my vote with a Brit, are we?"

Yes, it seems they are, and it seems to be working. So where do the Americans figure in all this? In this truly post-American century comic book, it seems they just don't get a say.

DC Comics