When the Guy Fawkes mask made its debut in V for Vendetta almost a decade ago, it inspired a movement against the overt censorship of politics and the internet, and more specifically, the beginnings of Anonymous, the self-proclaimed torchbearer of Internet freedom. Anonymous is defended as a bastion for rights and freedom, as much as it is vilified for being a just a destructive criminal outfit. The truth, inevitably, lies somewhere in the middle.
Understanding Anonymous begins with an overview of their history, beginning with 4chan, and evolving into a movement whose primary tools of the trade became denial of service and hacking attacks, accompanied by the public release of sensitive information, including the personal data of individuals involved with the organization placed in the cross-hairs. The public arm of Anonymous consists of press releases and videos that are as much information about its activities as they are about its principles, but also provide commentary on current events.
The group does act out against cases where miscarriage of justice or corruption is concerned, and these are actions that, while controversial, have merit. While hacking attacks are done to symbolize opposition to one issue or another, leaking information is a practice that predates Anonymous, but still remains a potent tool in revealing how organizations and governments that would not otherwise release their information, operate. The consequent fallout creates a public relations disaster for the affected parties, but it is a reminder that society works best when there is a degree of accountability and trust between governments and governed.
If Anonymous is around, is that a sign our social capital is critically low?
Social capital is an idea created by Robert Putnam to describe how much members of society trust one another. Healthy social capital indicates high levels of civic activity, regular voting and more time that people spend talking to one another face-to-face. Conversely, low social capital occurs when people are more isolated; in-person communication drops dramatically, as does participation in social activities. The proliferation of personal technologies and the many hours per day we spend on them is yet another sign that our time is experiencing significant communication problems, despite the fact you have 574 different methods of contacting your friends.
To be fair, modern society requires us to be online so as to be able to operate sufficiently in it. These days, verything from your health history to your job applications is stored on a server somewhere. Anonymous would therefore not be correct in compromising the personal information of people, who choose to use those platforms and expect that their information will not be compromised.
The overall impression one gets of Anonymous is that it is a force for both good and bad, reacting as it does to what happens in the world. Internet freedom is indeed important to upkeep, as the global protests against SOPA and ACTA showed, for instance, and attempts to regulate it will be met decisively, as Anonymous and its offshoots demonstrate. Further, if openness and polarization in public affairs are critically low, Anonymous shows that our society is having a crisis of trust and communication, leaving the group to do the talking for us when that is society’s job. However, this isn't to say that Anonymous's exploitation of personal data is a lawful practice.
Like it or not, Anonymous have become a force in cyberpolitics. Time will tell how their role plays out.