'Anonymous' movement views Web hijinks as public good, but legality is opaque

Protesters with D.C. Anonymous gather in Dupont Circle to let their feelings be known on Internet freedoms.
Protesters with D.C. Anonymous gather in Dupont Circle to let their feelings be known on Internet freedoms. (Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 11:32 PM

He goes by the code name AnonSnapple to keep secret the fact that he's part of the Internet collective of cyber-pranksters and activists called Anonymous.

Few at his D.C. private school know that the 17-year-old senior attends Anonymous's public protests, where he wears the movement's signature face mask of a grinning, mustachioed Guy Fawkes - the rebel who tried to blow up the English Parliament in the early 17th century.

In Prince George's County, another member of Anonymous, a 22-year-old community college student, keeps his affiliation quiet because he worries the group's missions - attacking the Church of Scientology and opponents of WikiLeaks - could hurt his chances of landing a corporate job one day.

In the Washington area, the Anonymous movement, which has attracted attention in recent months for attacks against the Web sites of major U.S. corporations, includes an emergency management technician in Fairfax County, an aspiring computer programmer in Southern Maryland and a Montgomery County woman who is training to be a teacher.

They plan and attend protests around the world. They share news stories and videos about their targets, which are generally organizations or governments that they think suppress free speech or expose the identities of political activists.

Although some in Anonymous have taken credit for trying to shut down Web sites of major U.S. corporations, members who spoke to The Washington Post said that illegal acts taint their group's credibility.

More than a dozen D.C. area "Anons," as they call themselves, spoke to The Post, but most insisted that they not be named for fear of attracting attention from government investigators.

The Anons denied taking part in any illegal acts, and in their chats on the WhyWeProtest.net forum, which is searchable on Google, they steer clear of discussing "distributed denial of service" (DDOS) attacks, mainly trading tirades against Scientology.

Many Anons conduct more sensitive discussions on Internet Relay Chat rooms, or "channels," which are typically on private servers to evade detection by search engines or law enforcement.

"People in Anonymous are being careful - you don't want to put yourself out there as a target," said Brian Mandigo, 37, a District resident who works as a security guard and is a former Scientologist who joined Anonymous. Scientologists loyal to the church recognized him at protests and identified him to police. Charged with attempting to stalk a Scientology official, he faces trial in D.C. Superior Court next month.

Mandigo condemns his group's DDOS attacks, which are designed to shut down Web sites run by companies and governments it opposes.

"Anything that is borderline illegal and outright illegal needs to be avoided, like the DDOS attacks," he said. "The government of Tunisia's Web site was attacked by Anonymous members - that sort of thing invites government interference. It casts a criminal element around the group, when we should be more open. Our motto is 'We do not forgive, we do not forget.' Personally, I forgive, and I certainly forget."

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