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Freedom fighters or vandals? No consensus on Anonymous
[August 16, 2011]

Freedom fighters or vandals? No consensus on Anonymous

Aug 16, 2011 (Contra Costa Times - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- From the Guy Fawkes masks to the 'We Are Legion' messages, the group Anonymous is nothing if not dramatic. But it is difficult to tell whether it is anything more than that.

The loosely knit organization took responsibility for posting private information about more than 2,000 BART customers Sunday in response to the transit agency's decision Thursday to shut off cell phone service at San Francisco's Civic Center station to head off a planned protest. Anonymous also was helping to organize Monday's protest at the same station.

Computer-security experts said Monday that the group, which appears to have little in the way of central leadership, has become known for using hacking attacks to fight what it sees as injustice. Police in Europe last month arrested several people affiliated with the group, with some of the arrests related to an Anonymous-led attack on PayPal (News - Alert) Inc.'s servers after the company refused to process donations to WikiLeaks.

Numerous reports have also linked the group to a warned Nov. 5 cyberattack against the social networking site Facebook (News - Alert). Nov. 5 is Guy Fawkes Night in England, the night in 1605 in which Fawkes was arrested while guarding explosives beneath London's House of Lords in an attempt to kill numerous politicians and King James I.

'A lot of hackers feel this is the one way they can attack the establishment successfully and get away with it,' said Joseph Steinberg, chief executive officer of Green Armor Solutions, which has helped companies deal with attacks from Anonymous and other hackers.

On Sunday, the group broke into the myBART website, which is run by an external vendor, and posted the names, street addresses, phone numbers and passwords of at least 2,400 users on a separate website that the hackers created.

On Monday, Anonymous appeared primarily to be using the Twitter (News - Alert) social-networking site to organize the Civic Center protest. A spokesperson contacted through Twitter declined an interview.

'We are Anonymous,' the group's Twitter biography reads. 'We are legion. We never forgive. We never forget. Expect us.' Like animal-rights protesters who send anonymous 'communiques' after releasing captive minks into the wild, Anonymous members may not even know each other, said David Wagner, a computer-science professor at UC Berkeley.

'It's a very loose-knit group of troublemakers and hackers,' Wagner said. 'There's no organization anyone can claim to be a part of.' Although the group's actions appear to be illegal, the public should not worry about Anonymous causing more serious damage, he said, such as taking control of BART trains. Such networks are usually far more secure than those containing customers' names and addresses, Wagner said, and most are not connected to the Internet.

But 'hordes of low-tech attackers can be annoying,' he added.

Annoying or not, Anonymous -- which uses as its logo two crossed swords and the Guy Fawkes mask made famous in the graphic novel and 2006 movie 'V for Vendetta' -- apparently has attracted a sense of romanticism from at least some people.

Brian Harvey, another UC Berkeley computer-science instructor, defended the 'hacktivist' group.

'I don't view them as a threat,' said Harvey, who first wrote about hackers more than two decades ago. 'I think they're the good guys. They're an ally.' Wire services contributed to this story. Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Contact him at 510-208-6488. Follow him at

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