Attack of the Cybermen
Activism empowered by the Internet
WikiLeaks. Anonymous. Occupy. Exactly when did real life slipstream over into some bizarre yet highly entertaining mash-up of V for Vendetta, Transmetropolitan, and 2000 AD's Judge Dredd? Seriously, have you seen the hypermilitarized riot gear the long truncheon of the law is wielding these days? Or the inescapable presence of the entirely incongruous – to American history, anyway – preponderance of Guy Fawkes masks both online and on the streets? It's enough, you'd think, to make V for Vendetta creator and noted reclusive curmudgeon Alan Moore rip the articulated silver rings from his fingers and summon forth Azazel to permafreeze the faux Fawkes faces to their fleshly countenances. Talk about being "anonymous."
But lo and behold, no. In a surprisingly uncharacteristic turnabout, Moore wrote last month on the BBC's Technology site: "As for the ideas tentatively proposed in that dystopian fantasy thirty years ago, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that whatever usefulness they afford modern radicalism is very satisfying. ... it feels something like V for validation."
Truly we have entered into some sort of crisis on alternate Earth(s) here. And where better to assemble the multiversed masses of geekerati and technogenii than at South by Southwest 2012? This year SXSW presents multiple panels on the virulent protestations sweeping the globe as well as two excellent documentary films for those late to the barricades. Patrick Forbes' Wikileaks: Secrets and Lies is an evenhanded examination of the patently unfunny brouhaha surrounding the intel dumpsite, creator/agent provocateur Julian Assange, and original leaker and presumed government fall guy Bradley Manning.
Brian Knappenberger's We Are Legion: The Rise of the Hacktivists is a definitive, finely calibrated documentary on what until a few years ago was more or less a semisecret noncollective born of Chris "moot" Pool's 4Chan site. (From Rickrolling, LOLcats, and creepiphilic Pedobears to shutting down the likes of PayPal, Mastercard, and Visa, moot's virtual Internet legacy may be one of the weirdest ever.) The self-dubbed Anonymous has since moved from utter mainstream obscurity to become the virtual face of rage in this era of ever-present inequality, appropriating the Fawkes visage along the way. It butted heads with the infamously litigious Church of Scientology before engaging and breaching the servers of the Tunisian government in January 2011 and officially (or as official as Anonymous gets) announcing its newfound pro-activist leanings. It's as though your kid brother (or sister – Anonymous is believed to be generally gender equal) had his fill of dick jokes and donned a stylin' black-ops hoodie and decided enough was enough – that it was time to break out the Low Orbit Ion Cannon (a hacking program) and, to quote Chuck D, "shut 'em down."
And so they have, time and again over the past two years, despite the arrests of "the Anonymous 16" in the wake of the PayPal, Mastercard, and Visa denial-of-service attacks. There are, as the Feds and Interpol surely know, far more Anons and their sympathizers out there than law enforcement has the ability to corral. As a friend of mine put it to me the other day, "If they somehow managed to uncover and bust every member of Anonymous and their sympathizers in Austin, Texas, we'd lose a third of our population overnight and Whole Foods would be a ghost town."
The big question – the $25,000 Pyramid Super Mega Jackpot Query of Total Fucking Relevance to the topic at hand – is this: Since the New Year's Eve passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows for the arrest, the indefinite detention, and – although not stated in such blunt terms in the actual wording of the law – the ability to "disappear" American citizens on any number of outlandishly vague (and thoroughly unconstitutional) charges relating to the already miasmatic notion of "homeland security," how long will it be before Anonymous and similarly self-christened Robin Hood Net avengers (Lulz Security, anyone?) are officially declared to be enemies of the state or terrorist entities?
Our guess? Not half as long as it took Alan Moore to grow that beard of his.
"I think it would be appalling if WikiLeaks and similar groups were targeted as terrorist organizations," says Forbes, director of Wikileaks. "What's interesting about the WikiLeaks disclosures is that, they've been unleashed upon the world and, hey, the world's still the same place and life goes on. All the stuff that was said about how this would destroy all the temples of modern day civilization and governance ... you know what? It hasn't happened. And there is some argument that the release of the WikiLeaks files has brought about some good. Things like the Arab Spring being helped along – although not 'caused,' as Julian thinks – by all the WikiLeaks disclosures, in that case it would be impossible to argue that they were anything but good."
U.K.-based Forbes, who came to the WikiLeaks story after a series of socially-aware documentary projects, explains: "I got interested in the whole thing because I thought all the coverage was going the wrong way, in that it was very Julian Assange-centric as opposed to the source. Anyone who's ever been involved in journalism knows that the source is the key. It seemed to me that Bradley Manning's plight was being completely overlooked, so that's how I got interested first off. I felt that a lot of the coverage around Julian and the rape stuff was a complete distraction from the main issues."
As of this writing, Manning is facing a court-martial for his alleged actions in the release of a trove of military data to WikiLeaks and has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by members of Iceland's Parliament. Confusing? Not really. Governments fear WikiLeaks (and by extension, Anonymous, Occupy, etc.) will expose their grimy inner cogs and mainsprings – the sometimes, if not always, bloody and duplicitous business of statecraft. The populace, on the other hand, is already aware (even if only intuitively) of shady goings-on between their leaders and those of other countries. It's hardly a surprise that Manning would be hailed as a hero in many parts of the global conversation. Either way, however, the genie is completely out of the bottle at this point.
"And you can't put that genie back into the bottle," notes Forbes. "It is impossible to do so. We are in a new era, and WikiLeaks is a symptom of that. It's not the cause of it but there is no going back now. Everybody involved has got to face up to that. Assuming that Bradley Manning did what he is alleged to have done, and that has yet to be proven, then the guy did a heroic thing for, it would seem, heroic motives. And, you know, it's really him who is symptomatic of this age. There he was sitting with this vast amount of information right there at his fingertips, he hit send, and it all went out in a nanosecond. And that's what's going to happen. Trying to say that will never happen again, or threatening Bradley Manning with life imprisonment, is just foolish. It's going to happen again and again. Any attempt to put that genie back in the bottle is doomed to failure."
In the case of Anonymous, the metaphorical genie has morphed from ethereal Internet entity into a vast number of living, breathing corporeal beings, a hive mind that has abandoned the hive in favor of the swarm.
And swarm they have. Just days before this writing, Anonymous released one of its increasingly frequent, should-be-patented, pseudo-Orwellian "operation statements" titled "Operation Global Blackout." It's threatening, in other words, to shut down the entire Internet just as soon as SXSW is over. (Hey, if Egypt can do it, why not the Anons?) And according to its online statement, "To protest SOPA, Wallstreet [sic], our irresponsible leaders and the beloved bankers who are starving the world for their own selfish needs out of sheer sadistic fun, On [sic] March 31, anonymous will shut the Internet down."
The statement continues with a rundown and how-to and concludes with this bold (and very V for Vendetta-esque) signoff: "We know you wont' [sic] listen. We know you won't change. We know it's because you don't want to. We know it's because you like it how it is. You bullied us into your delusion. We have seen you brutalize harmless old womans [sic] who were protesting for peace. We do not forget because we know you will only use that to start again. We know your true face. We know you will never stop. Neither are we. We know. We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not Forgive. We do not Forget. You know who you are, Expect us."
In the meantime, Anonymous has kept itself busy hijacking the websites of the CIA, FBI, and the Austin-based global intelligence outfit Stratfor (a hack that in retrospect is widely viewed by hacktivists inside and outside of Anonymous proper as a bit of a poor choice, seeing how Stratfor is generally regarded as a "white hat" – i.e. a good guy – insofar as global intelligence gathering companies can be considered good).
"I first heard about Anonymous when they attacked the Church of Scientology in 2008," explains Knappenberger, director of We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists. "Before that, I was vaguely aware of the digital online communities where they came from. But it was their presence, their physical presence, that I just found amazing. The Internet itself seemed to call forth this worldwide protest movement that was at once bizarre, compelling, and very intriguing."
How long does he think it will be before Anonymous is designated a domestic terrorist organization?
"I can't answer that, but obviously Anonymous is certainly a transformative and disruptive group that scares the governments and corporations of the world."
Surprisingly, for a leaderless, global band of latter-day Robin Hoods such as Anonymous, Knappenberger had little difficulty locating and interviewing members, several of whom agreed to speak on camera with their full identities revealed.
"They were very willing and ready to talk to me, actually. Tons of people talked to me off the record and didn't want to go on camera for obvious reasons. Some are on camera and don't actually conceal their real-world identity, including one who has gone to prison for a year and is back home but not allowed to literally touch a computer for a period of one year. Later in the film, we have the other extreme, with interview subjects using voice distortion and so on. A sizable portion of these people, even I don't know who they are now, even though I talked to them once a week. These are people who are hunted by the FBI, still, and in all cases, when I approached it as a filmmaker, I tried to respect whatever level of privacy that specific individual asked for."
Which makes, in a backward sort of way, perfect sense: the faceless, nameless people that comprise the hacktivist entity known as Anonymous want to tell their side of the story as much as anyone else. Left to the government or the mainstream media, they're inevitably painted as either teenage "hackers on steroids" or liberty-and-freedom-threatening terrorists with presumably maniacal laughs to boot. Outside of Wired.com's recent series on the history of Anonymous, Knappenberger's documentary may be the most accurate and journalistically evenhanded reportage the group will ever see.
"One of the things that I find so new about Anonymous is that they are a combination of things that aren't, actually, new. Hacking's not new, hacktivism isn't all that new, the whole 'trickster/joker' element isn't new and in fact that goes back centuries. But when it comes to the number of people who go online, the prevalence of new communication tools such as Twitter and all that, the amount of personal information online, and the ability to spy on that personal information – when you combine all off these disparate elements, then I think you have something that is very, legitimately new in the human experience. It doesn't know any kind of geopolitical boundaries and I think that governments are trying to figure out what's going on."
Knappenberger continues: "I think WikiLeaks is a big part of this, too. It turned out to be a tool that is extremely powerful and extremely frightening to governments around the world. And the Occupy movement is also part of this continuum which revolves around freedom of speech, human rights. These tools have given people a way to mess with the powers that be. And they're doing it in massively transformative kinds of ways."
Emergent technologies, then, are the double-edged lightsaber of the not-quite-dystopian now. Just as 30,000 airborne drones were recently ordered for commercial and law enforcement use in, around, and above American cities, you can be certain that somewhere a motley band of hacktivists is already writing the code that will enable them to blind Big Brother's eyes in the sky. It is, for now, a standoff. Not between good and evil, per se, but between the morally neutral transparency of the truth and the shady opacity of traditional governance. Freedom and privacy hang in the balance as never before, and what comes next? Your guess is as good as anyone's.
Wikileaks: Secrets and Lies
Friday, March 9, 9:45pm, Vimeo
Tuesday, March 13, 7:15pm, Alamo Ritz
Wednesday, March 14, 5pm, Violet Crown
Saturday, March 17, 4:30pm, Alamo Lamar
We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists
Sunday, March 11, 6:30pm, Vimeo
Tuesday, March 13, 2pm, Vimeo
Wednesday, March 14, 5pm, SXSatellite: Alamo Slaughter
Friday, March 16, 4:15pm, Alamo Lamar
We Are Legion: Digital (R)Evolution
Tuesday, March 13, 11am
Austin Convention Center, Room 18ABCD
Surviving Lulz: Behind the Scenes of LulzSec
Tuesday, March 13, 12:30pm
Sheraton Austin, Capitol EFGH
Fight Back Against Hack: Protecting Consumers
Saturday, March 10, 11am
Hilton Austin Downtown