I’ve been exchanging emails with a hacker. I don’t know his real name, where he lives or what he does for a living. All I know is that he started out as a “grey hat”, before being recruited by a member of Anonymous to launch attacks against PlayStation. He went on to help reconfigure old dial-up modems to get Egypt back online after the government shut down the internet and contribute to operations against Scientology and Westboro Baptist Church, not to mention doxing (releasing private information about) drug cartels.
It didn’t occur to me that the claims being made by this stranger I’d tracked down over Facebook were anything other than legit. Fortunately, he was looking out for both of us. “I’m sure you’re used to people saying ‘I’m a hacker’ and talking out of their ass,” he wrote, before dropping me a link and password to prove he wasn’t just blowing smoke. “Sorry, I’m at work at the moment and haven’t got time to do anything more impressive.” I clicked through and found myself inside the mail server of a charity from the Dominican Republic.
I had made contact with my new friend a few days earlier, via an event page for the London branch of a nationwide protest against the coalition government’s “bedroom tax”, a controversial cut in housing benefit designed to penalise council-house residents with spare rooms. The spin is that it will free up bedrooms for larger families and save an estimated £480 million a year from the housing benefit bill. But as many critics have pointed out, successive governments’ failure to build enough social housing means there may not be enough smaller properties to go around.
The protest didn’t exactly have the makings of one that would go down in history. Bar the odd, small Facebook group there was no sign of the masses being mobilised. Maybe people were indifferent. Maybe they weren’t angry enough yet. Maybe we shouldn’t have dubbed it the cushy sounding “bedroom tax”. But either way, I’d heard that Anonymous were going to show, so I pulled on my V for Vendetta mask and became Anonymous for the day.
Initially, my new friend spurned my request to tag along with him. He only responded a few days later when I messaged again to ask if footage I’d seen on YouTube depicting people in Anon masks being carried away by police was from the same day. It was. Turns out there was an after-protest which involved wandering down to Parliament for an impromptu sit-down before heading to the Department for Work and Pensions, where they got into a minor spat with police.
The plan for the protest was to meet at Trafalgar Square and walk the short distance to Downing Street, where we would stop and tie shirts scrawled with phrases like “David Cameron you have these people’s blood on your hands”, “seriously not happy” and “TORY SCUM” on the railings opposite. I arrive to find Anonymous have seized Nelson’s Column and are waving flags. A crew of youngish suited-and-booted masked men help lift me up. “As long as you share the same ideas as us, then you are Anonymous,” one of them says. “Everyone here is Anonymous whether they choose to be or not.” I pledge to come in evening wear next time.
The people behind Anonymous are the teenage prodigies hacking everything from the CIA to PayPal. The cyber activists who take down government websites in response to violence against protestors. The unskilled script kiddies who get a bad name for using other people’s programs to run riot. The journalists who get suspended from work with the prospect of doing time for leaking login information. They are also people like you and me, who can’t hack for shit but take to the internet to air our grievances, inspiring Anonymous to step up.
This all-embracing philosophy is the reason I’m at a protest where everyone from a kid in a buggy to a dude who looks like he could be programmed to kill is rocking an Anonymous mask. I stop a man with a megaphone and mask swinging from his neck. “I don’t know if I associate myself purely with Anonymous,” he says. “I’m just acting as a freethinking human, and I see a group that believes in the same things I do.” Jay, a student down from Hertfordshire, agrees, adding, “The mask shows that we’re all just one force, rather than a group of individuals. Our faces are “With Anonymous we have witnessed true democracy, a place where everyone has an equal vote. We are the slaves that tasted freedom, and now we want a bigger bowl” going to die out and become forgotten but anyone can be the mask. Anyone can become part of Anonymous and make a stand.”
It isn’t long until 1,000 or so people have congregated outside Downing Street. “We are Anonymous, we never, ever forget, and we’re coming for you, David Cameron,” echoes from a nearby speaker as protesters “get shirty” as planned. I encounter teenagers and adults, men and women, hackers and non-hackers, all from different backgrounds. But everyone I speak to predicts big things for the future of the internet’s most infamous bad boys. “They’ll become more of a force to be reckoned with,” declares a guy in what looks like black-bloc get-up. “They’ll take things further and further. Politicians and govern-ments should be worrying about Anonymous because they are everything and everybody.”
“Are you part of them as well?” I ask. “I’m part of everything,” he says. Where is Black Bloc today? “Everywhere.” What do they look like? “They look like you and me and him and them.” Straight answers are few and far between. I guess that’s what you get when a collective has no rules and no manifesto.
At the time of writing, newspapers are full of stories about denial-of-service attacks, in which a network is flooded with useless traffic, causing it to crash. But my new friend says he doesn’t hold out much hope for this relatively new hacker phenomenon. “It’s fairly easy to block anything except a truly massive attack,” he explains. “The problem with hacktivism, frankly, is that it’s not hacking.” Instead, he sees the group morphing into a more physical idea, with further Anons spilling out into the real world and taking to the streets.
“With Anonymous we have witnessed true democracy. Not this bought-and-paid-for democracy in which we live, but a place where everyone has an equal vote. We are the slaves that tasted freedom, and now we want a bigger bowl.” With the ramifications of the government’s welfare cuts still to come, I’m assured it’s going to be a summer of discontent. I guess we’ll have to watch this face.
Photography by Grame George
Follow Fiona Cook on Twitter here @fionawcook