“… [Batman’s] the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero.” – Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman), The Dark Knight.
A masked force of vigilante justice inspiring fear and respect, the hacktivist group Anonymous are seen by some as an army of Batmen, and by others as a mob of anarchist Jokers. Acting outside the law does not inspire public confidence, but the group's recent results may change their reputation.
Anonymous’ value becomes obvious when the law is unable to stop organizations that inflame righteous public ire. The First Amendment covers the infamously bigoted protests of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), but it did not deter Anonymous. In response to the church’s plans to picket the funerals for the school children of Newtown, CT, Anonymous hacked Westboro Baptist’s databases.
Releasing an extensive list of the WBC’s members’ contact information, Anonymous made a directory of names, phone numbers, and addresses available to whomever would want to make use of that information. They also pledged to help counter-protest the Westboro horde.
Just as in The Dark Knight, law enforcement has an obligation to pursue unlawful vigilantes. There has been no police response to Anonymous’ recent actions against the WBC, but the authorities have made arrests in the past. Infamous for exposing customer credit cards and hacking government websites, Anonymous have made their fair share of enemies. When MasterCard and PayPal were hacked, Anonymous’ Christopher Weatherhead was brought to trial, and convicted.
For those who think we can do without Anonymous, take note. Anonymous’ KnightSec arm has just come to the defense of a rape victim in Steubenville, Ohio, after the community’s response was incredibly tone-deaf. They have changed the course of the controversy in Steubenville using their favorite tactic — the freeing of information. By releasing a disturbing video of an accused Steubenville athlete laughing as he says, “She is so raped,” Anonymous have shown their worth.
Yet public support for hacktivist groups is unlikely to reach critical mass, thanks to their more dangerous actions. Take Cosmo The God, a high-profile hacker who has also hacked the WBC. He leads the group UGNazi, who breached the CIA’s website, an action that the public would file under "untrustworthy."
We can’t pledge unqualified support to Anonymous. They deem themselves above the law, beholden to no one. They don’t always act nobly; and as new factions emerge, they’re just as likely to destroy as they are to help. Some of these groups implement chaos just because they can — to watch the internet burn. Through the roles they have been playing, and are likely to continue to play, Anonymous is now an important actor on the world stage. They aren’t heroes, but it is too early to cast them as villains.