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Anonymous No More

March 3, 2015

Backed by philanthropy, McGill professor Gabriella Coleman is cracking the code on the world’s most notorious hacker group

The online hacktivist collective Anonymous has made a name for itself with daring cyber-attacks on high-profile targets like the CIA, Visa and the Vatican. But what exactly is Anonymous? A group of noble activists speaking truth to power, or a bunch of rabble rousers trolling the Internet?

These are the kind of questions being probed by Gabriella Coleman, McGill’s inaugural Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy. A leading international expert on computer activism, Professor Coleman is looking behind the Guy Fawkes mask to explore the complex sphere of cyber insurgency and the motivations of these highly skilled hackers. The Wolfe Chair was created through a generous gift to McGill from a donor who, ironically enough, wishes to remain anonymous.

“Anonymous is not an organized group per say, but it can be quite organized in different moments,” she explains. “At any given time, there are small teams who work behind the scenes to harness spontaneous outcries and collective anger in very effective ways, and then allow for broader participation in these different operations.”

Though Anonymous took shape in 2003 on 4Chan, an online image board popular among hackers, the group first made headlines internationally when it launched a series of pranks and online assaults aimed at the Church of Scientology five years later. Coleman, who was conducting research on free and open-source software at the time, was intrigued and began to study the subversive group.

“I was immediately hooked, though I never thought it would grow beyond that narrow issue,” she says.

But grown it has, and thanks in large part to the funding provided by the Wolfe Chair, Coleman has kept close tabs as the online outlaws have taken a more political course and targeted government agencies and banks, corporations and child pornography websites. She has even gained direct access to the secretive cabal, spending many evenings interacting with hackers in clandestine online chat rooms.

“They’ve targeted many different entities over the years, but their bread and butter is exposing corruption and fighting censorship,” she explains.

As a result of these campaigns for social justice, Anonymous has become the object of public fascination and earned sympathizers around the world.

“Some people see them as white knight vigilantes, while others see them as more nefarious figures, but what unites everyone’s interest is the high degree of mystery that follows them. You’re never quite sure who they are and when they are going to spring up next,” she says.

Coleman has helped to provide a credible voice around this sensational issue by participating in educational lectures, sharing her expertise with the New York Times and other leading newspapers, and appearing on TV, radio and in the documentary We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists.

“Because of the Wolfe Chair, I have the generous resources required to educate on the underlining infrastructure of the Internet, often by discussing hackers and activists who both make and disrupt these technologies,” she explains.

Coleman is now putting the finishing touches on a new book, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Story of Anonymous, which will be released this fall and chronicle her foray into this precarious virtual minefield.

“In the end, I got quite deep in that world, but information was limited until there were arrests and convictions,” she says. “Because of these arrests, the stakes have become even higher and hackers are now that much more secretive.”