For the past six years, Gabriella Coleman has been hanging out in the IRC chat rooms used by Anonymous -- but she's no hacker.
The anthropologist and academic spent time there to learn the language and social codes of the digital troublemakers. She eventually became so trusted by the group's members that they once sought her advice about information they had stolen from an intelligence firm. That hack would later land one of them in prison.
Coleman, now considered the leading expert on the group, sheds light on the motivations of the shadowy collective in her new book, “Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous.” She offers an extensive recap of Anonymous’s history and its biggest exploits, such as its anti-Scientology campaign and its role in the Arab Spring uprisings.
Coleman, who lives and teaches in Montreal, recounts an instance when members asked her for advice on whether the media would cover information they had obtained illegally. She was given a heads-up by Jeremy Hammond that a "major intelligence corporation" was about to get "owned." She would later learn it was Austin, Texas-based Stratfor. In November, Hammond was sentenced to 10 years in prison for having taken part in the theft of e-mails and account information from the company.
Much of Anonymous's initial stunts were done simply for “the Lulz,” or amusement. Over time, the group's targets and actions were fueled more by politics and activism against big corporations, security forces, governments and censorship. Their headline-grabbing exploits struck a disproportionate amount of fear in many businesses, according to Coleman, who was asked to explain the group's motivations to executives and managers.
"Corporations were freaking out even though at the same time they knew that Chinese hackers and other groups were breaking in to steal intellectual property,” Coleman said in an interview.
And it wasn't just businesses that were alarmed by Anonymous. In November 2012 during Barack Obama’s run for re-election, Harper Reed, the campaign’s chief technologist, received a private message on Twitter from an account linked to Anonymous that simply said: “Hi. The next few months are big. I thought we should maybe chat.”
By then, Anonymous was already known for defacing and bringing down dozens of websites. Reed asked his boss and the campaign’s head of security what to do, and they in turn checked with lawyers, according to Coleman. A lot of consulting happened before a decision was made to not respond. All this over a tweet. Reed confirmed Coleman's account.
Coleman was told that the Anonymous members who sent the message were simply "playing with boundaries" and seeking to "initiate a conversation."
The book goes on sale Nov. 4, in time for Guy Fawkes Day.