Who is Anonymous? A look at the hacktivists aiding revolution in the Middle East

Amidst the revolutionary turmoil of the Middle East, the shadowy online hacker group known as “Anonymous” has spread its influence. Government websites in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Algeria, and Iran – as well as Zimbabwe and Italy — have been attacked and at times shutdown by the hacker group which claims it fights in its own way for freedom.

Leading the way in this new age of digital warfare, Anonymous has described its members as vigilante defenders of free speech and opponents of censorship. Their primary method of attack is distributed denial-of-service (DDoS), which rapidly overloads websites with simultaneous requests, freezing or crashing computer servers.

So who exactly are these hacktivists?

Ars Technica reported that Anonymous is a scattered and diverse group of individuals, ranging from students to office-workers, from software developers to IT support technicians.

The group claims to fight for freedom “as a swarm” and not as an organization or business, according to Topiary Gardenslayer, an online Anonymous activist identified as being heavily associated with the group. Spokesman for Anonymous, Gregg Housh, said that Gardenslayer frequented the Anonymous Operations computer servers (Anon Ops) that are used to plan attacks and seemed to understand the group’s objectives.

A member of the group told Al Jazeera English that the movement “grew out of message boards frequented mostly by young people with an interest in internet culture in general – and Japanese media in particular.”

In 2005, they began attacking online venues “as a sort of sport, and in the process honed their skills in a way that proved useful in information warfare,” the informant said.

The group helped Tunisian protestors, furious with the regime, by shutting down their government’s websites after the government had taken down the country’s internet . Al Jazeera reported that some Tunisians assisted in the online attacks and can be shown in a YouTube video thanking Anonymous.

After Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak restored internet to his country after a shutdown the government initiated to weaken the protest movement, Anonymous fired back with “Operation Egypt” shutting down the Egyptian government’s websites.

“The activism online reflects the activism that you see on the streets,” said Daniel Castro, a senior analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.  “Taking down government websites has effectively shut down one means of communication for the government and helped amplify the voice of protesters.”

Gardenslayer said, “We wanted to let the protesters (especially in Tunisia and Egypt) know that we had their backs, and that we’d fight for them in any way we could.”

Scott Andes, Research Analyst at The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, commented, “The Internet has emerged as the most freedom-promoting medium of communication in world history, if ‘just-in-time’ Internet shutdowns become a tool in the toolbox of authoritarian leaders then this is call for concern and will require action by the international community.”

Anonymous claims to believe that censorship, the stifling of free speech and the “unchecked greed of corporate powers and governments threaten our culture and our existence.” The group says it “share[s] that common fundamental interest with the public.”