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The Secret Lives of Dangerous Hackers
WE ARE ANONYMOUS – Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency (Parmy Olson, 498 pages. Little, Brown & Company. $26.99)
In December 2010 the heat-seeking Internet pranksters known as Anonymous attacked PayPal, the online bill-paying business. PayPal had been a conduit for donations to WikiLeaks, the rogue whistle-blower site, until WikiLeaks released a huge cache of State Department internal messages. PayPal cut off donations to the WikiLeaks Web site. Then PayPal’s own site was shut down, as Anonymous did what it did best: exaggerate the weight of its own influence.
But, according to “We Are Anonymous,” by Parmy Olson, the London bureau chief for Forbes magazine, it had taken a single hacker and his botnet to close PayPal. “He then signed off and went to have his breakfast,” she writes.
(The accuracy of this account is in dispute. PayPal says that its site was never fully down. But as Ms. Olson says, in “a note about lying to the press,” this is how she weighed information as a reporter: “Did supporters of Anonymous lie to me in some interviews? Yes, though admittedly not always to start with. Over time, if I was not sure about a key point, I would seek to corroborate it with others. Such is the case with statements presented as fact in this book. My approach to Anons who were lying to me was simply to go along with their stories, acting as if I were impressed with what they were saying in the hope of teasing out more information that I could later confirm. I have signposted certain anecdotes with the word “claimed” — e.g., a person “claimed” that story is true. Not everyone in Anonymous and LulzSec lied all the time, however, and there were certain key sources who were most trustworthy than others and whose testimony I tended to more closely, chief among them being Jake Davis.” Mr. Davis, known as Topiary, appears to be a principal source in describing how the PayPal attack unfolded.)
Even so, Anonymous made it seem like the work of its shadowy horde. “We lied a bit to the press to give it that sense of abundance,” says the figure named Topiary, one of the best sources in “We Are Anonymous,” a lively, startling book by Ms. Olson that reads as “The Social Network” for group hackers.
As in that Facebook film the technological innovations created by a few people snowball wildly beyond expectation, until they have mass effect. But the human element — the mix of glee, malevolence, randomness, megalomania and just plain mischief that helped spawn these changes — is what Ms. Olson explores best.
“Here was a network of people borne out of a culture of messing with others,” she writes, “a paranoid world whose inhabitants never asked each other personal questions and habitually lied about their real lives to protect themselves.”
The story of Anonymous and its offshoots is worth telling because of the fast and unpredictable ways they have grown. Anonymous began attracting attention after it attacked the Church of Scientology in 2008; subsequent targets have included Sony’s PlayStation network, Fox television and ultimately the C.I.A. The Homeland Security Department expressed its own worries last year.
Ms. Olson provides a clear timeline through Anonymous’s complicated, winding history. She concentrates particularly on how it spun off the smaller, jokier group LulzSec. “If Anonymous had been the 6 o’clock news, LulzSec was ‘The Daily Show,’ ” she writes.
The breeding ground for much of this was 4chan, the “Deep Web” destination “still mostly unknown to the mainstream but beloved by millions of regular users.” The realm of 4chan called /b/ is where some of this book’s most destructive characters spent their early Internet years, soaking up so much pornography, violence and in-joke humor that they became bored enough to move on. Ms. Olson, whose evenhanded appraisals steer far clear of sensationalism, describes 4chan as “a teeming pit of depraved images and nasty jokes, yet at the same time a source of extraordinary, unhindered creativity.” It thrived on sex and gore. But it popularized the idea of matching funny captions with cute cat photos too.
“We Are Anonymous” also captures the broad spectrum of reasons that Anonymous and LulzSec attracted followers. Some, like Topiary — who turned out to be Jake Davis, an outwardly polite 19-year-old from a sheep-farming community on the remote Shetland Island called Yell, who was arrested in 2011 — were in it for random pranks and taunting laughs. This book does not shy away from the raw language its principals used, as when Topiary told one victim: “Die in a fire. You’re done.” Other participants had political motivations. The New Yorker calling himself Sabu began as a self-styled revolutionary and was instrumental in getting Anonymous to invade the Web sites of top government officials in Tunisia.
A pivotal part of this book concerns the arrest of Sabu, the unveiling of his real identity as Hector Monsegur, and the F.B.I.’s subsequent use of him as an informant. Sabu’s dealings with Julian Assange of WikiLeaks are also described. Ms. Olson notes how Sabu “suddenly seemed very keen to talk to the WikiLeaks founder once his F.B.I. handlers were watching.”
Ms. Olson regards it as inevitable that neither Anonymous nor LulzSec could reconcile the divergent goals of its participants. Bullying jokesters and politically oriented hacktivists may share sophisticated knowledge of how to manipulate the Web and social media, but each faction became an embarrassment to the other. Topiary told Ms. Olson about his own long-distance contact with Mr. Assange, whom he describes as both intrigued by the saboteurs’ potential and critical of their silly side. (After sifting through 75,000 e-mails from a digital security firm, Topiary bashfully admits, one of the things that most interested him was an e-mail from the chief executive’s wife saying, “I love when you wear your fuzzy socks with your jammies.” )
The most startling conversation in “We Are Anonymous” was arranged by the author: an in-the-flesh meeting between Topiary and a person she calls William, since he remains unidentified.
William personifies the dehumanizing effects of cybercrime, and he knows it. One of his specialties is extorting pornographic pictures and then putting them to damaging use. “We split up several boyfriends and girlfriends and appalled many people’s mothers,” he recalls, about the Facebook tricks the book describes in detail. “I’d be lying if I said there was any great reason,” he adds. “I don’t feel guilty, it makes me laugh, and it wastes a night.”
Together they confirm the worst suspicions about the power of sophisticated but untethered Internet manipulation. “You could inspire some 15-year-old, or someone with a 15-year-old’s mind-set, to hate whoever you want them to hate,” William says.
Postscript: May 31, 2012
After this article was published, PayPal contacted The Times to take issue with the statements in the book that say the hackers shut down its Web site. Jennifer Hakes, a senior manager in corporate communications, said that as a result of the attacks in December 2010, “PayPal was never down.”