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how-big-anonymousShort Bytes: Anonymous is a decentralized hacktivist group that has been into existence since 2003. It is hard to predict the actual size of the group as most of its activities are not commenced in the daylight. Yevgeny Golovchenko, a research student at the University of Copenhagen, did make his efforts to approximate the number of members in the group.

Anonymous, a self-declared collective that has been associated with taking down government websites and fighting ISIS. This question – how big is Anonymous? – is still uncertain as the actual size of the widely distributed group, or a “movement” as it is called now, is hard to predict. And we can’t rely on mere calculations regarding the actual number of members who title themselves as Anonymous.

The collective group has been working on a global platform and the Anonymous members are referred to as “Anons”. LulzSec, founded in May 2011 and AntiSec. which came into existence in June 2011, are two well-known subgroups to Anonymous. Another associated group GhostSec has been in the news after the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

An aggregate sack of flesh – meshed together by wires transistors and Wi-Fi signals – replete with miles of tubes pumping blood, pounds of viscera-filled with vital fluids, an array of live signalling wires, propped up by a skeletal structure with muscular pistons fastened to it, and ruled from a cavernous dome holding a restless control centre, the analog of these fabulously grotesque and chaotically precise systems that, if picked apart, become what we call people.

— this is Anonymous as described by Gabriella Coleman, Professor at McGill University and an anthropologist. She has been a regular observant and a media commentator in accordance to various operations by Anonymous.

The Initial Imprint (2003-2013)

In 2003, the very first sightings of Anonymous’ activities were images posted by unknown users tagged as Anonymous on the /b/ board of 4chan website, and they become quite popular. Further, their operations advanced to raiding websites, one famous case was of a Finnish social network website Habbo Hotel, where they blocked access to regular users, given the reason, “closed due to fail and AIDS”.

The users at 4chan started the use of IRC (internet Relay Chat) to play offline pranks as the internet traffic exploded on 4chan. Such acts did attract media attention – a news report was aired on KTTV, a Los Angeles-based unit of FOX network, branded Anonymous as “domestic terrorists” and “internet hate machine”.

In their initial days, Anonymous all was all about mass pranks, trolling events and actions against the internet communities who supported anti-piracy acts. Encyclopedia Dramatica, that came into existence in 2004, served as a platform for the satirical motivations fulfilled by Anonymous.

It was in 2008, when Anonymous tasted the very first bite of hacktivism. Operation Chanology or Project Chanology, a protest against the Church of Scientology was initiated which included a series of digital attacks. 4Chan users were involved in acts of prank-calling Church’s hotline, repeated DDoS attacks, and sending black faxes that led to wastage of ink cartridges, all as a retaliation to the copyright infringement letter published by the church, after a video featuring “Tom Cruise practicing Scientology” surfaced on a blog named Gawker on January 15, 2008.

Eventually, their engagement with the Church of Scientology faded down and the group’s activities nowhere to be noticed by the start of 2010. It was in September 2010 when Anonymous got an opportunity to fine tune their hacking muscles, launched a DDoS and took down the website of Aiplex Software. Aiplex was an Indian company which partnered with film studios and specialised in launching DDoS attacks against websites like The Pirate Bay, which hosted pirated content.

Subsequently, the websites of the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) were also taken down as the part of the protest against the anti-piracy norms. An operation titled “Payback Is a Bitch” launched on September 19, 2010, in which the Mustafa-Al-Bassam( Known as Tflow) and other Anons hacked the website of the anti-piracy group, Copyright Alliance. The following statement was issued after the takedown:

Anonymous is tired of corporate interests controlling the internet and silencing the people’s rights to spread information, but more importantly, the right to SHARE with one another. The RIAA and the MPAA feign to aid the artists and their cause, yet they do no such thing. In their eyes is not hope, only dollar signs. Anonymous will not stand this any longer. The websites of Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft, the U.S. Copyright Office, a British law firm ACS: Law, and many more, were taken down as a part of the Payback operation.

The horizon of the Payback operation was expanded to include “Operation Avenge Assange”, which was in response to the boycott of WikiLeaks by various companies like Amazon, Paypal, MasterCard, and VISA, as the consequence of classified cables concerning the U.S. government were released by WikiLeaks. DDoS attacks were launched against Paypal, PostFinanace and EveryDNS, who denied service to WikiLeaks. The attack also included the website of U.S. Senator Joe Leiberman, who supported the denial of access against WikiLeaks.

In 2009, YouTube allegedly suspended the account of a user Luckywes1234 for having abusive languages in some videos. As a protest, Anonymous in collaboration with eBaum’s World declared March 20, 2009, as the YouTube Porn Day and uploaded numerous videos featuring “hank panky acts”. They repeated the same in 2010.

The succeeding years marked the commencement of Operation Tunisia (2011), which was to support the Arab Spring movements. It also included defacing Tunisian government websites led by various Anons like Sabu, and providing protected access to normal internet users with the help of a script written by Tflow. Another protest, Operation Egypt, was carried out in order facilitate access to websites banned by the government, which was done in collaboration with an activist group called Telecomix.

Another major protest which gained worldwide recognition, included compromising user data of over 100 million Sony accounts, all done in retaliation for making efforts to prevent the hacking of PS3. The attack led to the close-down of Sony’s Play Station Network and Qriocity services for about a month.

Aside of their online presence, Anonymous has also presented themselves in the real world. It was on November 5, 2013, when numerous Anonymous protesters wearing Guy Fawkes Masks, gathered in 400 cities around the world for the commencement of Million Mask March.

Recent Work of Anonymous:

Anonymous and its Anons have continuously signified their presence through various operations and protest actions they’ve conducted from time to time. But in the last couple of years, there is no doubt about the fact that Anonymous has matured from a mere prank-playing group, no matter ISIS calls them idiots, but they’ve imparted their efforts.

#OpOK (2013)

This initiative was focused on helping the victims of Oklahoma Hurricane Sandy disaster in 2013. A widespread mission was initiated which included gathering any sort of information that could be used to identify and find lost victims.

This is an urgent message concerning the absolutely devastating impact of the tornadoes that left a trail of destruction through Oklahoma on 5/20/2013. A new Anonymous operation is being launched known as #OpOK in an effort to assist with the clean-up/recovery effort. There is no limit to who you can help or what you can do… however we ask that you please do something.

#OpSafeWinter

Another operation led by Anonymous, which concerned the homeless people on the streets. The aim of the mission was to raise awareness among various social welfare groups so that any sort of help could be provided to the homeless people.

Laurine Murphy writes for the DailyDot,

“Do something amazing this winter… that’s the point.”

So said the administrator of @OpSafeWinter, the Twitter account heading up public relations for Anonymous’ most ambitious project for 2013 and 2014. We spoke to the Anonymous member via Twitter direct message for an exclusive interview on the umbrella project dubbed #OpSafeWinter. The goal is to get Anons and “civilians” out into the streets all over the world to save lives by giving the homeless and the critically poor the tools they need to survive at least one more season.

Michael Brown & Tamir Rice Shootout (2014)

Anonymous did admit their protest in the two police shootouts, one of Michael Brown, an African American in Ferguson, Missouri and another of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio. They launched new twitter handles and threatened to take down federal websites if any of the protestors was harmed by the police. In the Tamir case, Anonymous used BeenVerified to disclose the phone number and identity of the involved police officer.

#OpCharlieHebdo (2015)

On the cold day of January 7, 2015, 12 people were shot dead in a death massacre at the office of Charlie Hebdo. Anonymous having intentions to completely “erase” ISIS from the internet, released a video through their Belgian YouTube account in which they promised a response to “al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and other terrorists”. In the video, a man wearing the Guy Fawkes Mask was quoted saying, “We are declaring war against you, the terrorists”, in an electronically distorted voice.

#OpCyberPrivacy (2015)

Another act of vengeance covered in the protest list of Anonymous was in response to the Anti-Terrorism Act, 2015 or C-51 Bill passed by the Parliament of Canada which accorded more powers to the Canadian Intelligence Agencies in order to fight terrorism. They claimed the responsibility of defacing federal websites on June 17, 2015.

A snippet from the video,

Greetings citizens of the world, We are Anonymous. This is Operation Cyber Privacy. This statement is an urgent call to action. As indicated in our most recent video, we have joined forces with Operation C51, as well as our comrades in France, the UK, and beyond. As part of this union, we are calling for a global March of solidarity with Operation C51 on May 30th. Multiple cities in Canada and the United States have already established protests, and you can join them by contacting us on Twitter. If you can’t find a protest in your area – organize one.

#OpKKK (2015)

In this operation, Anonymous announced the revelation of about 1000 names and emails concerning the members of Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and its affiliates. They said in a press release, “You are terrorists that hide your identities beneath sheets and infiltrate society on every level. The privacy of the Ku Klux Klan no longer exists in cyberspace.”

On November 2, 2015, a list of 57 phone numbers and 23 e-mails was published, but Anonymous denied involvement in the same by a tweet made through @Operation_KKK, “#ICYMI #OpKKK was in no way involved with today’s release of information that incorrectly outed several politicians.”

Anonymous Vs. ISIS

Apart from their numerous take-down events from time to time, the hacktivist group has also been in the news for their worldwide cyber-attacks against the Islamic State. The collective also announced its offensive hacking motives to kill ISIS online.

One of the recent attacks was a couple of weeks ago, in which they hacked an ISIS propaganda website and trolled ISIS by posting Viagra ads concerning to a company CoinRx, which promotes itself as the “#1 Bitcoin online pharmacy”. The following message was displayed on the website,

Too Much ISIS. Enhance your calm. Too many people are into this ISIS-stuff. Please gaze upon this lovely ad so we can upgrade our infrastructure to give you ISIS content you all so desperately crave.

The credit for hacking the ISIS Darknet website was bagged by GhostSec, a scion to the Anonymous collective formed to declare a war against ISIS. GhostSec came into light after the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks and claimed to have taken down thousands of ISIS twitter accounts and websites. However, they’ve cooperated with the intelligence agencies in the name #OpISIS, but eventually, it was known that their operation backfired a little bit as most of the Twitter account they closed belonged to normal people, not the ISIS.

Anonymous chose December 11, 2015, as the “Anti-ISIS day of Rage”. On this day, the collective has planned to fill the feed of ISIS Twitter handles with pictures of dead ISIS terrorists. This step of Anonymous is being seen as the continuation of its efforts to attack ISIS in response to the Paris attacks.

Greg Housh is one of the publically known Anonymous members. These days he is sort of semi-retired from his hacking stuff. Talking to The Washington Post, he told more about what Anonymous is and how it operates.

Housh said that everyone loves to call it “hacking”, but Anonymous also does tons of “research, identifying and monitoring everything out there that ISIS might use to communicate and recruit, and trying to get those channels shut down, be it Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, telegram channels”.

Replying to a question – If you report ISIS accounts, and social media companies shut them down, won’t they just open others? – Housh said that it’s very hard to get followers on Twitter and influencing people once again is difficult.

#OpParis (November 2015)

Anonymous from all over the world will hunt you down. You should know that we will find you and we will not let you go.

A declaration made by Anonymous after the series of bomb attacks of the city of Paris in November 2015. The hacktivist group was quick to issue a warning to its long-time foe ISIS. The group released two videos that warn ISIS and ask them to “expect a total mobilization on their part.”

Anonymous has already leaked more than 1000 ISIS Twitter Accounts as a part of the #OpParis campaign.

Recommended Read: The “Secret ISIS Cybersecurity Guide” Was Just A Simple Security Guide In Arabic

How big is Anonymous?

It is a well-known fact that Anonymous is not a registered organisation nor they’ve any formal structure to account for their operations. Making assumptions about the actual size of the decentralized group spread all around the world only contributes to a vague notion.

However, a commendable effort was made by Yevgeny Golovchenko, a research student at the University of Copenhagen. In a study conducted about six months ago, Golovchenko did arrive at a conclusion only to fathom that the actual size of the collective is far more than what the world has perceived.

On March 29, 2015, Golochenko used a software called Netvizz to harness all the publically available data referring to the probable connections possessed by Anonymous on the internet. It was a collection of 2,770 Facebook pages with 51,764 connections gathered after Golovchenko manually trimmed down from a set of 5,470 Facebook pages with 123,625 connections via likes. It is the “absolute minimum size of the page network”, as assumed by the research student.

One could argue that getting Likes is easier for 2,770 pages than for instance 1 page. Hypothetically, the same person could have “Liked” most of the Anonymous pages – although such an endeavour would take hours if not days. Similarly, the same person can use more than one account to Like pages or even Facebook bots. For this reason, the 22.5 million Likes do not necessarily represent 22.5 million people. These challenges occur when counting the number of Likes for any page on Facebook. However, even if only a third of the Likes represent actual Facebook users, the network is surprisingly immense – even to the members of Anonymous who have commented on this paper’s results. Only few mainstream media can match the movement’s enormous internet infrastructure.

— explained Golovchenko.

For the trimming operation, Golovchenko chose three criteria, one of which was to be fulfilled by a page in order to associate it with Anonymous:

  1. Direct association with the movement (“We are Anonymous“)
  2. Direct promotion of the movement’s cause
  3. Use of symbols that characterize the movement

According to Golovchenko, a mere display of the Guy Fawkes Mask is not a criterion enough to qualify as an Anonymous page, the V for Vendetta fame mask is quite popular among the general public.

David Gilbert writes for the IBTimes,

Having gathered all the data, the graduate student set out to visualise his finding, with each point (node) in the graph representing a Facebook page that is associated with Anonymous. If page A gives page B a Like, they become connected with a line. The node size represents the amount of Likes received from others in the network. Colours show different communities.

Analysis of the data shows that while Anonymous really is a global movement, regional groups typically connect with other groups in that region (Europe, Asia, Africa) and while much of the media attention is focused on Anonymous in the US, there are also major nodes in places like Germany, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Brazil and Canada.

Final Words:

The group or movement titled as Anonymous is in existent since 11 years and has been subject to a worldwide criticism by various federal organisations. They describe themselves as “an internet gathering”, and collectively work on various social issues. The notion, whether they’re right or wrong is only a perception that needs to be individualised. And the fact that they’re working against numerous terrorist activities, should be praised for the unintentional efforts they’re contributing.

As far as the legality of their acts is concerned, it is the decision of our lawmakers, whether they put aside a sincere group of people working for social issues, or they coordinate their operations with Anonymous and make this world a better place.

Please write your thoughts about #OpParis in the comments section below.