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Decoding "Anonymous": Who Is the Activist Group Threatening Bernanke and the Fed?

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The growing power of the hacker group raises controversy and concern.

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On Monday, the Federal Reserve and Ben Bernanke in particular were targeted by the hacker group known as Anonymous. The online activists posted a video on YouTube called 'Ctrl+Alt+Bernanke', demanding Bernanke's resignation, and accusing the Federal Reserve Chairman of betraying the American public by not prosecuting those responsible for the 2008 financial crisis. Their threats to take down the Fed's computer systems caught the attention of the global media. (Scroll down to the bottom of this article to see the complete video.)

Today, the online group once again made the headlines, this time for being associated with a security breach at the IMF.

Elsewhere, the government of Malaysia is gearing up to thwart a promised online attack (Anonymous is taking aim at the country's censorship policies) and Turkey recently arrested 32 alleged members of the group.


Who is Anonymous?
The leaderless collective-hacker group, known as 'Anonymous', is a phenomenon that clearly could not have happened until very recently. The faceless group of thousands was loosely formed throughout 2003 on various online imageboard and forum websites. The members, found around the world, are galvanized by a sense of duty to deliver a sort of internet justice where no one else would. United only by a loose set of ideals, a basic sense of right and wrong, Anonymous acquires new members by the minute. But they are only a group "in the sense that a flock of birds is a group." writes Chris Landers of the Baltimore City Paper, who also called Anonymous "the first Internet-based superconsciousness." And there's no limit to how large this flock can grow.

What started as a small gang of hackers who defended victims of discrimination and outed sexual predators has evolved into a formidable enemy of much bigger foes. In 2010 Anonymous launched 'Operation Payback'. This, among other wide-ranging and open-ended undertakings has been credited with successfully hacking Amazon (AMZN), PayPal (EBAY), MasterCard (MA), Visa (V), Sony (SNE), major law and security firms, and even foreign governments. Both MasterCard and Visa's websites were fully taken down for 24 hours. Many gamers can recall those frustrating three weeks last April when their PlayStation Networks stopped functioning. Private e-mails of Bank of America (BAC) executives were made public.


Why is Anonymous attacking these companies? What happens once the company's systems have been hacked?

The operations were not random and each had a significant purpose; either to protect free speech and property rights or to defend the controversial Julian Assange, founder of the whistleblower website WikiLeaks. The specific reasons for each hack vary from company to company, but for an example, Sony was targeted because the company had taken legal action against a programmer who had enabled homemade software to run on his PS3 gaming console. As this is not explicitly illegal, the lawsuit and harassment of hackers earned Sony a sizeable retaliation. Last December, Anonymous shut down Paypal for five days because they complied with the US Government's request to freeze WikiLeak's online account. This support for Assange is indicative of the running motif between all recent Anonymous attacks: to protect the integrity of a free and open internet.


How are they able to get away with this?

The strength of Anonymous lies in its numbers. Without getting too involved in computer jargon, Anonymous uses a technique known as a distributed denial of service attack (DDoS), which basically brings down a web server by having many people flood the bandwidth at the same time. Although the attacks to date may only be world famous in the digital community, if enough people rallied behind a single cause and decided upon a common enemy, little could be done to stop Anonymous from bringing down virtually any server in the world.

Media coverage of Anonymous has been, relative to their effect, minimal. Many critics of the mainstream media believe that media leaders are aware of the latent capabilities of Anonymous, and therefore give the group little publicity, thwarting the activists' ability to recruit additional members.

So are they "good guys" or are they a threat?
The members of Anonymous claim to be defenders of truth and seekers of knowledge, but going by descriptions of the group's chaotic methods and structure, its members may soon find themselves with a whole lot of power and no real leadership. This has some sobering implications: for example, what if enough members decided to paralyze a major institution without fully considering the ramifications?

Writing for the Guardian, Jana Herwig, a PhD Candidate in Media Studies at the University of Vienna explains:


If one understands Anonymous, the group, as a contemporary, post-adolescent mask society and Anonymous, the collective identity, as its mask, activities such as Operation Payback appear in a new light: they, too, can be read as an attempt to exert social control ... through punishing them with DDoS attacks.

Although it may be unfeasible to take down the heavily protected Federal Reserve computer system at this point in time, there's no one to say it will be impossible forever. How far will our authorities go in preventing this sort of power from consolidating? What does that mean for freedom of speech and expression on the internet? Is there something inherently wrong with citizens banding together over a single cause to generate change?

For now, even the experts have more questions than answers. But if one thing is for sure, it's that the notoriety of these 'hacktivists' is about to leap out of the chat rooms and into everyone's lives.

Watch Ctrl+Alt+Bernanke below:

No positions in stocks mentioned.

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