Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec,
Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency

By Parmy Olson Little, Brown. 498 pp. $26.99

Dear Editor:

“We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency” by Parmy Olson (Little, Brown)

I’m writing to explain my reluctance to review “We Are Anonymous,” Parmy Olson’s worthwhile tome about amorphous groups of disaffected young hackers, such as Anonymous and LulzSec, that wage cyberwar. While I enjoyed the book, I am afraid that even gentle criticism will make me the target of the same computer wizards who cracked the Web sites of government security contractors, the Church of Scientology, Sony, Amazon, Visa, Mastercard and the FBI. Surely, these often-teenage coding geniuses will steal my identity within minutes of reading an even slightly unfavorable review. After all, I am a technophobic 35-year-old who uses similar passwords for my Gmail, Yahoo, Netflix, Verizon, Facebook, Twitter and Capital One accounts.

I also worry that I will be unable to sufficiently explain Anonymous and LulzSec’s motivations and modus operandi in a short space since Olson, London bureau chief for Forbes, struggles to do so in 500 pages. As she recognizes, weathered, old-media journalists have trouble writing about such groups’ 21st-century anti-organization. “A newfangled phenomenon like Anonymous, born of the Internet itself, was something society would struggle to make sense of at first,” she writes.

Their ambiguous motivations make groups such as Anonymous and LulzSec difficult to dismiss or get behind. Are these platforms for informed political actors or for juvenile delinquents? As Olson details, Anonymous criticized Tunisian Internet censorship in early 2011 and staged DDOS attacks on dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime. (“DDOS” means “denial of service” — what happens when a Web site crashes after too many people visit it simultaneously, one of many technical concepts that Olson clearly explains.) Then again, LulzSec-affiliated techies also attacked PBS — as Olsen points out, the home of “Sesame Street” — after its program “Frontline” criticized WikiLeaks. LulzSec wits defaced with “a cartoon image of a cat flying through space and pooping a rainbow.”

A woman who infiltrated a mostly male subculture, Olson offers remarkable interviews with Anonymous’s antiheroes. She helps readers differentiate between ciphers who live in a virtual world, communicating via IRC (“Internet relay chat” sort of like AIM) using nicknames such as “Tflow” and “AVunit,” and rarely meeting IRL (“in real life”). Still, since “Anons,” or members of the group, are known for their mendacity, one wonders whether Olson — or any journalist writing about a new technology on dead trees — isn’t being played for a fool by a publicity-hungry network of pseudo-terrorists.

The Washington Post should handle “We Are Anonymous” — and any articles about computer hackers — with great care. These are difficult stories to get right and dangerous ones to get wrong.

If you do publish my review, please do not include my e-mail at its conclusion, as is customary. I’d prefer that my Social Security number remain secret.

— Justin Moyer