What is Anonymous? How the infamous ‘hacktivist’ group went from 4chan trolling to launching cyberattacks on Russia

A person standing outside the White House wearing a Guy Fawkes mask as part of a 2013 protest featuring supporters of the hacking group Anonymous.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

For nearly two decades, one of the world's most infamous hacker groups has operated under the name "Anonymous." And the mysterious online community is making headlines once again.

After Russia invaded Ukraine at the end of February, a Twitter account with 7.9 million followers named "Anonymous" declared a "cyber war" against Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. Since then, the group has claimed responsibility for various cyberattacks that disabled websites and leaked data from Russian government agencies, as well as state-run news outlets and corporations.

Often called "hacktivists," Anonymous employs coordinated cyberattacks against various world governments, corporations or other groups, often in the name of social or political causes. In a Feb. 24 tweet, the "Anonymous" account — which says it "cannot claim to speak for the whole of the Anonymous collective" — called on hackers around the world, including in Russia, to "say 'NO' to Vladimir Putin's war."

Over the years, actions linked to Anonymous have inspired both Hollywood filmmakers and other hacker groups around the world. Here's a look at the murky group's origins, some of its most notable cyberattacks and the philosophy that allegedly steers its decisions:

Anonymous origins

Anonymous' origin story begins in the online message forums of 4chan, the anonymous social community website founded in 2003. Even today, posts on 4chan from users who don't specify a username are labeled as written by "Anonymous."

In the website's early days, users often organized group pranks called "raids," flooding chat rooms in games and other online communities to cause disruptions. 4chan began cracking down on the raids after critics accused participants of cyberbullying and posting offensive content.

Those raids formed the basis of Anonymous' operations: a decentralized movement of like-minded online users who would communicate in encrypted chat rooms to plan online disruptions. At first, those plans were largely about cheap entertainment. Eventually, they began to revolve around social or political aims.

The best financial advice I learned from my time on Wall Street
The best financial advice I learned from my time on Wall Street

The group's most prominent early instance of "hacktivism" came in 2008, when 4chan users led by early Anonymous hacker Gregg Housh launched a coordinated effort against the Church of Scientology, using tactics like denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks on the church's websites, prank phone calls and faxing the church black pages to waste their printer ink.

The cyberattacks, which Anonymous labeled "Project Chanology," were retaliation for what the hackers deemed as attempted censorship: The church had legally threatened Gawker after the media outlet published a leaked video of actor Tom Cruise speaking enthusiastically about Scientology.

A series of worldwide protests against Scientology soon followed, with many Anonymous-supporting protesters wearing white-and-black Guy Fawkes masks, depicting the 17th century British insurrectionist. Those masks have since become closely associated with hacking group.

Philosophy and targets

Generally, Anonymous opposes governments and corporations that it views as participating in censorship or promoting inequality. Since the group is decentralized, it has no real structure or hierarchy — so there's often much internal debate about which ideas or causes to support.

A pinned 2019 tweet on the @YourAnonNews Twitter account – which, again, claims not to speak for the collective as a whole – describes Anonymous members as "working class people seeking a better future for humanity." It lists Anonymous' guiding principles as "freedom of information, freedom of speech, accountability for companies and governments, privacy and anonymity for private citizens."

Since "Project Chanology," Anonymous members have targeted a long list of parties, including:

Authorities around the world have arrested dozens of hackers with alleged ties to Anonymous, including at least 14 people charged with hacking PayPal in 2011. Barrett Brown, a journalist and self-professed Anonymous spokesperson, served more than four years in prison after a 2012 arrest on charges related to cyberattacks and threatening a federal officer.

The collective's activities trailed off after some of those arrests, but resurfaced last year when Anonymous claimed responsibility for hacks targeting the Republican Party in Texas, in protest of the state's controversial abortion law. Anonymous also claimed responsibility for a September hack of web-hosting company Epik, which leaked more than 150 gigabytes of data on far-right groups like QAnon and the Proud Boys.

Supporters and critics

In 2012, Time magazine named Anonymous one of the world's 100 Most Influential People. Today, millions of people follow Anonymous-affiliated social media accounts.

Jeremiah Fowler, a co-founder of the cybersecurity company Security Discovery, told CNBC last week that Anonymous' supporters likely view the group as somewhat of a "cyber Robin Hood," targeting powerful governments and corporations in the name of popular causes.

"You want action now, you want justice now, and I think groups like Anonymous and hacktivists give people that immediate satisfaction," Fowler said.

But Anonymous definitely has critics. Many believe the group's vigilante tactics are extreme and potentially dangerous. In 2012, the National Security Agency deemed Anonymous a threat to national security.

Parmy Olson, a journalist who wrote a 415-page book on Anonymous in 2012, stated at the time that even the group's supporters should consider its legacy a mixed bag.

"Has Anonymous done good for the world? In some cases, yes," Olson told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, citing Anonymous' support of pro-democracy demonstrators in the Middle East. "Unnecessarily harassing people? I would class that as a bad thing. DDOSing the CIA website, stealing customer data and posting it online just for sh-ts and giggles is not a good thing."

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