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

By Ian Shapira
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."

Keeping a low profile

Other local Anons see what happened to Mandigo and keep a low profile. AnonSnapple, who lives near Bethesda with his mother, a housewife, and father, an economist at the International Monetary Fund, worries that investigators might link him to last month's DDOS attacks launched by some Anonymous members against MasterCard, Visa and PayPal, which had stopped processing payments to WikiLeaks.

"Awhile ago, the FBI did some raids on servers from Anons that were involved in the attacks," he said. "Even though I don't do them, I am still a part of them. I am still active on the same chat rooms as people that [did] the DDOS [attacks]. . . I can be easily linked to them."

Targeting Scientology

Although Anonymous's reputation is tied to WikiLeaks, the group initially drew attention in 2008 after it organized protests outside Scientology churches in several countries. Anonymous members rallied against attempts by church officials to remove from YouTube a promotional video that actor Tom Cruise, a Scientologist, had made for the church.

Later, Anonymous attacked Web sites of the film and music industry associations to protest their campaigns against file sharing.

Scientology remains one of Anonymous's chief targets. Group members say the church bilks its members out of cash, mistreats its staff and members, and has committed human rights violations.

Sylvia Stanard, a spokeswoman for the Founding Church of Scientology at 16th and P streets NW, rejected those allegations and said that Anonymous members are responsible for bomb threats and harassment at Scientology churches around the world. At the D.C. church, photos of Anonymous members are kept at the receptionist's desk, and Stanard said she trolls an Anonymous forum online to scout out potential disasters.

"It's really frustrating," she said. "You get this intractable mind-set with them - you're wrong, they're right, no matter what you say. The danger from these Anonymous guys is the Tucson shooting. It makes sense that they're into this game of being anonymous. Somehow it's like being a secret agent in their mind. They're usually single, in their 20s or 30s, never been married, no kids, don't have a regular job. A lot of them are bored; this gives them a social outlet."

Anonymous's membership - a term that people in the leaderless, unstructured movement would reject - is unclear. WhyWeProtest.net, one of its main forums, counts 33,000 registered users with 200 to 700 active at any time, said Gregg Housh, a Boston-based Anonymous member who helps run the forum.

Harassment charge

It was on WhyWeProtest.net that AnonSnapple took a break recently from his International Baccalaureate courses in math and economics to organize an Anonymous rally in Dupont Circle.

"Go to the Fountain!" he wrote on the forum. "Bring masks, banners, flyers, cake, music, speakers, microphones, happiness and tons of friends!!!"

He has told only his parents, a few trusted friends and one teacher about his Anonymous work. Lately, after school, he has been talking to Tunisian bloggers in Internet chat rooms, giving them online tools to help them evade censorship during the North African country's popular uprising.

"I was making them care packages - free tools that give them fake Internet addresses so the Tunisian government can't block their sites," he said. "My parents sorta think it's funny and good that I am doing something political - they're very liberal. And as long as I don't do anything illegal, they're fine with it."

Still, he clings to his anonymity because that is the group's code: no full names, no hierarchy. Many local Anons justify their anonymity by pointing to Mandigo's attempted-stalking case.

Kim Belotte, the Scientology executive director who has accused Mandigo of harassment, said in court papers that Mandigo repeatedly heckled and filmed her as she left her workplace. "I believe Mandigo is psychotic," she wrote in a petition for a restraining order. "I believe he has a personal vendetta against me."

Through a church spokesman, Belotte declined to comment.

Mandigo said he was exercising his constitutional right to protest the church. "I think that anything illegal should be avoided," he said, declining to discuss his case in detail.

Fear of exposure

Other Anons remain undercover, mainly, they say, because it would be hard to explain their actions to friends and family. The Prince George's community college student, who is studying to be a systems administrator and hopes to work at a company such as Google, said he does not disclose his work for Anonymous to his parents because "they're people I love, and I don't want to get into fights with them."

The man, whose first name is Chris, said he feared that public identification with Anonymous could hurt his father, a National Institutes of Health police officer.

He worries so much about being exposed that after attending masked protests outside the Scientology church, he walks around the city and ducks into a museum for several hours to ensure he has not been followed.

Some Anons said they view their efforts as a public service but worry that their friends wouldn't get it. A 36-year-old Montgomery County woman who is pursuing a degree in early childhood education said she read up on the Iranian protests in 2009 on WhyWeProtest.net and decided to take action. She alerted Internet service providers that they were inadvertently hosting pro-government Web sites that exposed the faces of Iranian protesters.

"But I haven't really discussed it with my friends," she said. "Sometimes, you start trying to explain what Anonymous is, and they say, 'Yeah, you lost me. Let's talk about something else.' " She declined to be named in part because she does not want to jeopardize her husband's top-secret clearance at his government contracting job.

Some Anons do tell a select few about their work. AnonSnapple recently asked a teacher whether he could submit a time sheet of hours spent designing and passing out fliers for an Anonymous rally in Dupont Circle.

"I just asked her if I could earn potential credits for, say, making banners, fliers, handing out fliers and protesting. And she said yes," AnonSnapple said. "As you might be familiar with the International Baccalaureate program, you need activity, creativity and service hours."

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