A worldwide network of hackers has managed to gain access to the most secure networks on the Internet. The leaderless and faceless group, known as Anonymous, has infiltrated networks of the CIA, Interpol, email accounts of presidents, and has taken down the major web properties of global corporations. During its near-eight years of existence, Anonymous hackers have exposed a huge network of neo-Nazis in Germany and a stealth online child pornography ring.
No one knows how wide the Anonymous hackers' network stretches across continents, nor how many people belong to the Internet-based group. All activity takes place on mostly secure networks and on social media. Anyone can carry the banner of Anonymous.
[More from Mashable: Your Profile Pic Has Nothing on These Guys [VIDEO]]
The rise of social media has proliferated the threat of attacks from people who claim to be a part of the elusive group. Though many times these highly publicized threats are not carried out, they nevertheless garner significant publicity.
Anonymous has claimed responsibility for data breaches, information leaks and website crashes. The group uses YouTube to upload voice-altered messages, Pastebin to upload documents about operations, the Tor Project to encrypt links -- making click paths untraceable -- and other online tools to protect identities.
[More from Mashable: Mashable Connect Is More Than a Conference]
Most missions are carried out in response to current events or in the fight for human rights. Anonymous often claims to be fighting for the defenseless. Whether Anonymous is an organization of vigilantes working for good, or simply cyber-criminals, that's up to you.
Origin: From Lulz to Political Action
Anonymous took form in 2003 on the online message board 4chan (think yesteryear's Reddit, which proliferates meme culture). The anonymity of the website spawned a group of pranksters, from which the politically geared Anonymous of today has evolved. Users on 4chan could post images and messages under the name "anonymous" or "moot" (nickname of 4chan's then 15-year-old founder Christopher Poole).
Cole Stryker, author of Epic Win for Anonymous: How 4Chan's Army Conquered the Web has been following the evolution of Anonymous since its inception. "I was interested in this whole culture of Anonymous that tracks down people and harasses them," Stryker told Mashable. "And from there, Anonymous as a political activist group evolving away from the little more trollish activities. They were attacking the Church of Scientology and starting to go after Sony and a couple of other huge companies."
The amorphous group shifted gears in 2007 with the plot against the Church of Scientology. Stryker calls this attack on what members perceived to be an "evil" organization as a rebranding for Anonymous. "Basically a group of Anons realized, 'Well, we have this ability to harness the power of thousands of strangers through the Internet to pull all those resources in making someone's life miserable. Why don't we take that power and use it for good?'"
Anonymous is still misunderstood, says Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist studying hacker culture and digital activism. Though recent attacks have been politically influenced, it's not accurate to label Anonymous as a group with any sort of agenda.
Anonymous missions can have a direct action that may be "coy and playful, sometimes macabre and sinister, often all at once, Anonymous is still animated by a collective will toward mischief — toward 'lulz,' a plural bastardization of the portmanteau LOL (laugh out loud)," Coleman states in an article published in Triple Canopy's Issue 15.
The one thing to take away about Anonymous is that it is extremely malleable. Stryker suggests thinking of Anonymous as a brand instead of a group. Anyone can claim to be Anonymous at any time.
"Anonymous means something different to everybody, that's a part of it. The guy who is protesting economic reform in Greece has very little in common with the guy who is terrorizing 11-year-old girls on YouTube in the U.S.," Stryker said, referring to the 4chan attack on Jessi Slaughter.
Anonymous is a household name partly because of the extraordinary events that took place in 2011. Social revolutions occurred in Bahrain, Tunasia, Yemen and Egypt, proliferated by Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. The air of political uprising spread to the United States, where Anonymous members picked up on these causes.
Anonymous and other "hacktivist" groups were responsible for over 58% of all the world's comprised data last year, according Verizon's 2012 Data Breach Investigations Report. Activist groups account for stealing over 100 million records.
The researchers noticed that online hackers weren't just acting for bragging rights or out of boredom. Hacktivists were working for more fiery publicity. "The major shift that occurred in 2011 was that activist groups added data breaches to their repertoire with much-heightened intensity and publicity," the report states. "In other words, 2011 saw a merger between those classic misdeeds and a new 'oh by the way, we’re gonna steal all your data too' twist."
The annual report is conducted by Verizon, along with international police and security forces.
"The anti-Scientology protest was the first time they did it for political reasons," says Stryker. "Since then it has grown increasingly political, especially since they integrated with the Occupy Wall Street protests."
Anonymous has used the cartoon Guy Fawkes mask, worn by the main protagonist in 2005 movie V for Vendetta, as the main image for the movement. OWS has also adopted the icon in the pursuit of change.
Anonymous actively spread the word about the Occupy Wall Street movements, which took root in downtown Manhattan and spread to encampments of activists worldwide. "When Occupy Wall Street started, Anonymous spread the word online," says Stryker. "It drove more members to get involved. OWS was about physical protest, and Anonymous added an activist element in tandem."
Watch this video message, announcing Anonymous' adoption of the Occupy Wall Street movement, then located in lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park on Sept. 17, 2011. [via AdBusters].
Hacked: CIA website, in addition to several international law enforcement accounts
Date of Incident: Feb. 3, 2012
What's Known: Anonymous made Feb. 3, 2012 the "day of action" of coordinated efforts to take down several government web properties. In the CIA.gov hack, personal data from Alabama court papers -- Social Security numbers, birthdays and addresses -- were exposed. Confidential emails from a Mexican mining agency were also released.
The same day, hackers forced their way into a conference call between the FBI and Scotland Yard, the UK's Metropolitan Police Service. The 16-minute call was posted on YouTube with the headline "Hacked for the Lulz."
Arrests: British teens Ryan Cleary and Jake Davis were arrested in connection with the hacked conference call. British officials who gained possession of Cleary's hard drive described him as “a 15-year-old kid who’s basically just doing this all for attention and is a bit of an idiot."
Image courtesy of Flickr, 4d4mbr0wn
Click here to view this gallery.
Image courtesy of Flickr, patdebaz
This story originally published on Mashable here.