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I’ve had this column in the back of my head for a while now. Since Extra Credits brought it up, this week seems like a good time to tackle the topic. (Also, do make sure to see Extra Credits. Even if you usually stick to reading and don’t watch videos because you’re surfing the web from work. It’s exactly the show I would make if I made a video series. And was less of a crank. And had artistic ability. And more talent. And could talk like a chipmunk.)

There is nothing more fearsome than a small group of self-organized, highly motivated people who have been united by a common cause. Sometimes these are very good and herald positive change. (Peaceful protest, various types of non-violent civil disobedience.) And sometimes they are shockingly bad. (Organized crime, terrorists.) But the important thing is that their combined efforts allow them to effect change that none of them could accomplish alone.

The drawback of organized groups is that they’re vulnerable to standard law enforcement. All the police have to do is grab one or two members of the group. Imagine the police drag you in and explain that they want the names of all of the people in your organization. They have a list of things your group has done or is believed to have done, and they explain how you’re facing ten years in prison. If you cooperate, you’ll just get a few years of probation. Moreover, they say that they have arrested one of the other members of your group. He’s going to talk. If he talks first, he’ll get probation and you’ll do the hard time. Your friends are all going to end up in jail either way, so you might as well save yourself, right? After all, you’re not one of the bad ones, are you? You’re one of the reasonable ones. We’re just after the more dangerous members. Don’t make us lock you away for ten years of beatings and prison rape. Just answer our questions and you can avoid this horrible future. You’ll be home by Friday.

Maybe they’re lying about the prison sentence. Maybe they’re lying about arresting your colleague, or about the charges against you. Maybe they don’t care about you at all. Maybe they just want information and are willing to terrify you with prison to do it. It doesn’t matter. It takes an exceptionally disciplined person to stand firm in the face of this kind of intimidation. Odds are, not everyone is exceptionally disciplined. The arrest of one leads to the arrest of others, and others. Sooner or later, the police will know who everyone is, what they’ve done, and where to find them.

Through the magic of the internet, Anonymous has found an interesting solution to this problem, which is to have an organization where nobody knows anyone else. Normal police methods don’t work on them, because they don’t have any relevant information to share. Even if the cops pierce the veil of secrecy and locate a single member of the group, that arrest won’t impair the organization as a whole. Worse, it forms an investigative dead-end.

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One important thing to note is that this sort of organization is only possible for ideologically motivated groups. If Anonymous existed for profit, they would once again become vulnerable. Money leaves a trail that the authorities can follow. Money changing hands creates the need for accounting, so that the various members all know that they’re getting their fair share. If Anonymous went from protesting to pilfering, the change in their behavior would destroy the group faster than any law enforcement agency could.

However, the open nature of the group means that anyone can be (or pretend to be) a member. An FBI agent can show up in their chat room and talk to them, but he’s not going to learn who they are, or where he can find them.

The point is I don’t think Anonymous is suddenly going after credit cards. Extra Credits pointed out that it goes against the group ideals. I’d also say it goes against the machinery of the group. If Anonymous was in the business of stealing money, they would have been rounded up ages ago. Barring a truly foolproof way of un-traceably transferring money over national borders that allows both the giver and receiver to exchange money in subpoena-proof anonymity, it would be impossible for them to turn a profit.

It’s been suggested that while not condoned by the group itself, the PSN attack may have been perpetrated by some subset of Anonymous. It’s possible, but un-provable and sort of beside the point. Anonymous does a lot of work that focuses on counter-security. Certainly some people are attracted to the group because they enjoy breaking into things, not because they are honestly interested in everything the group stands for. (This is allowing for the fact that it’s hard for an anonymous group to definitively “stand for” anything.) It’s also reasonable to think that some of those people might do some non-Anonymous type hacking in their free time.

I don’t think Anonymous is nearly as dangerous as people imagine them to be. Yes, they hack websites and interfere with the normal operation of the web, but is that really worse than other types of protesters? Think of the picket lines that block government buildings, shut down companies, or blockade traffic during rush hour. Those are annoying if they get between you and where you’re going, but they’re also a natural side-effect of living in a society where people are free to protest peacefully. This isn’t to say that their actions are inconsequential or should go un-punished, but that we shouldn’t blow them out of proportion.

Secret societies have always been unstable things. It’s hard to make an impact on the world without being visible yourself, and making yourself visible makes you a target to people who oppose your ideas. It’s an interesting dynamic, and I can’t think of a similar situation in history.

Shamus Young is the guy behind Twenty Sided, DM of the Rings, Stolen Pixels, Drawn To Knowledge, and Spoiler Warning.

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