nettime's_troll on Sun, 3 Jun 2012 10:48:47 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> NYT: The Secret Lives of Dangerous Hackers


   The New York Times | International Herald Tribune

Books of The Times

The Secret Lives of Dangerous Hackers

`We Are Anonymous' by Parmy Olson


Published: May 31, 2012

   Postscript Appended

   In December 2010 the heat-seeking Internet pranksters known as
   Anonymous attacked PayPal, the online bill-paying business. PayPal
   had been a conduit for donations to WikiLeaks, the rogue
   whistle-blower site, until WikiLeaks released a huge cache of State
   Department internal messages. PayPal cut off donations to the WikiLeaks
   Web site. Then PayPal's own site was shut down, as Anonymous did what
   it did best: exaggerate the weight of its own influence.
   Enlarge This Image

Valgas Moore

   Parmy Olson


   Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber

   By Parmy Olson

   498 pages. Little, Brown & Company. $26.99.

   But, according to "We Are Anonymous," by Parmy Olson, the London bureau
   chief for Forbes magazine, it had taken a single hacker and his botnet
   to close PayPal. "He then signed off and went to have his breakfast,"
   she writes.

   (The accuracy of this account is in dispute. PayPal says that its site
   was never fully down. But as Ms. Olson says, in "a note about lying to
   the press," this is how she weighed information as a reporter: "Did
   supporters of Anonymous lie to me in some interviews?  Yes, though
   admittedly not always to start with. Over time, if I was not sure about
   a key point, I would seek to corroborate it with others.  Such is the
   case with statements presented as fact in this book.  My approach to
   Anons who were lying to me was simply to go along with their stories,
   acting as if I were impressed with what they were saying in the hope of
   teasing out more information that I could later confirm.  I have
   signposted certain anecdotes with the word "claimed" -- e.g., a person
   "claimed" that story is true.  Not everyone in Anonymous and LulzSec
   lied all the time, however, and there were certain key sources who were
   most trustworthy than others and whose testimony I tended to more
   closely, chief among them being Jake Davis."  Mr. Davis, known as
   Topiary, appears to be a principal source in describing how the PayPal
   attack unfolded.)

   Even so, Anonymous made it seem like the work of its shadowy horde. "We
   lied a bit to the press to give it that sense of abundance," says the
   figure named Topiary, one of the best sources in "We Are Anonymous," a
   lively, startling book by Ms. Olson that reads as "The Social
   Network" for group hackers.

   As in that Facebook film the technological innovations created by a few
   people snowball wildly beyond expectation, until they have mass effect.
   But the human element -- the mix of glee, malevolence, randomness,
   megalomania and just plain mischief that helped spawn these changes --
   is what Ms. Olson explores best.

   "Here was a network of people borne out of a culture of messing with
   others," she writes, "a paranoid world whose inhabitants never asked
   each other personal questions and habitually lied about their real
   lives to protect themselves."

   The story of Anonymous and its offshoots is worth telling because of
   the fast and unpredictable ways they have grown. Anonymous began
   attracting attention after it attacked the Church of Scientology in
   2008; subsequent targets have included Sony's PlayStation network, Fox
   television and ultimately the C.I.A.  The Homeland Security Department
   expressed its own worries last year.

   Ms. Olson provides a clear timeline through Anonymous's complicated,
   winding history. She concentrates particularly on how it spun off the
   smaller, jokier group LulzSec. "If Anonymous had been the 6 o'clock
   news, LulzSec was `The Daily Show,' " she writes.

   The breeding ground for much of this was 4chan, the "Deep Web"
   destination "still mostly unknown to the mainstream but beloved by
   millions of regular users." The realm of 4chan called /b/ is where some
   of this book's most destructive characters spent their early Internet
   years, soaking up so much pornography, violence and in-joke humor that
   they became bored enough to move on. Ms. Olson, whose evenhanded
   appraisals steer far clear of sensationalism, describes 4chan as "a
   teeming pit of depraved images and nasty jokes, yet at the same time a
   source of extraordinary, unhindered creativity." It thrived on sex and
   gore. But it popularized the idea of matching funny captions with cute
   cat photos too.

   "We Are Anonymous" also captures the broad spectrum of reasons that
   Anonymous and LulzSec attracted followers. Some, like Topiary -- who
   turned out to be Jake Davis, an outwardly polite 19-year-old from a
   sheep-farming community on the remote Shetland Island called Yell, who
   was arrested in 2011 -- were in it for random pranks and taunting
   laughs. This book does not shy away from the raw language its
   principals used, as when Topiary told one victim: "Die in a fire.
   You're done." Other participants had political motivations. The New
   Yorker calling himself Sabu began as a self-styled revolutionary and
   was instrumental in getting Anonymous to invade the Web sites of top
   government officials in Tunisia.

   A pivotal part of this book concerns the arrest of Sabu, the
   unveiling of his real identity as Hector Monsegur, and the F.B.I.'s
   subsequent use of him as an informant. Sabu's dealings with Julian
   Assange of WikiLeaks are also described. Ms. Olson notes how Sabu
   "suddenly seemed very keen to talk to the WikiLeaks founder once his
   F.B.I. handlers were watching."

   Ms. Olson regards it as inevitable that neither Anonymous nor LulzSec
   could reconcile the divergent goals of its participants. Bullying
   jokesters and politically oriented hacktivists may share sophisticated
   knowledge of how to manipulate the Web and social media, but each
   faction became an embarrassment to the other. Topiary told Ms. Olson
   about his own long-distance contact with Mr. Assange, whom he describes
   as both intrigued by the saboteurs' potential and critical of their
   silly side. (After sifting through 75,000 e-mails from a digital
   security firm, Topiary bashfully admits, one of the things that most
   interested him was an e-mail from the chief executive's wife saying, "I
   love when you wear your fuzzy socks with your jammies." )

   The most startling conversation in "We Are Anonymous" was arranged by
   the author: an in-the-flesh meeting between Topiary and a person she
   calls William, since he remains unidentified.

   William personifies the dehumanizing effects of cybercrime, and he
   knows it. One of his specialties is extorting pornographic pictures and
   then putting them to damaging use. "We split up several boyfriends and
   girlfriends and appalled many people's mothers," he recalls, about the
   Facebook tricks the book describes in detail. "I'd be lying if I said
   there was any great reason," he adds. "I don't feel guilty, it makes me
   laugh, and it wastes a night."

   Together they confirm the worst suspicions about the power of
   sophisticated but untethered Internet manipulation. "You could inspire
   some 15-year-old, or someone with a 15-year-old's mind-set, to hate
   whoever you want them to hate," William says.

   Postscript: May 31, 2012

   After this article was published, PayPal contacted The Times to take
   issue with the statements in the book that say the hackers shut down
   its Web site. Jennifer Hakes, a senior manager in corporate
   communications, said that as a result of the attacks in December 2010,
   "PayPal was never down."

A version of this review appeared in print on June 1, 2012, on page C27 of
the New York edition with the headline: The Secret Lives of Dangerous

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info:
#  archive: contact: