It's eight at night and I'm in an encrypted chat room Jitsi, with six participants from the Anonymous EterSec cell, responsible for the attack on FiB Bank, at the beginning of last week. None show the face, nor the famous V for Vendetta masks — but neither do they distort what they say with the vocoders they use to modulate the voices in the videos.

Voices vary. They are from older men, adults, others younger, others, women, each with rhythms and accents as diverse as Brazil itself. The interview has barely started and the question arises: if they are Anonymous, and there are many, how to interview them? How do you interview a crowd?

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“We prefer to be referred to collectively”, answers one of the participants. He explains that, unlike other hacker groups, the actions are not done out of sheer notoriety, but out of political activism.

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Another explains to me that the structure is completely horizontal, and that every voice inside each cell is valid. So, how do antagonistic opinions end up being respected in this plurality?

“We can imagine Anonymous as a big shoal in the ocean. It is common to see the end of a school breaking out in a direction opposite to the majority. There will be cases where we will see points (or cells, or individuals) going in opposite directions, based on their own vision of the ideal. But, because it is something so massive and so collective, it returns to the direction of the school. And sometimes, the part that comes off takes the school in a new direction.”

Meme and militancy: what is the origin and history of the Anonymous group?

protester with mask wearing T-shirt written occupy all streets at protest in united states with several masked people
Defining itself as an apolitical group with anarchist tendencies, EterSec explains that Anonymous acts in defense of democracy and freedom of the people. (Image: a katz/Shutterstock)

Anonymous is a group of activists who speak out against any person or institution — public or private — that endangers freedom and collective well-being. “Anonymous is an ideal. It's an idea”, answers one of them. "A decentralized movement of political activism that uses the internet as its main means of action, although it is not just limited to it."

Anonymous as an idea emerged in the early days of web 2.0, in 2003. Several forums and imageboards allowed anonymous publishing, which eventually populated the virtual imagination that all those people were, in fact, one.

However, what crossed the line from meme to real acting was #OpChanology, the operation that was the group's baptism of fire. In 2008, Scientology leaders filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against YouTube after uploading a church-produced video of Tom Cruise. The overthrow was considered censorship by the collective, which gathered in numerous forums and Internet Relay Channels (IRCs) to coordinate actions.

“The actions were stronger in the denial of service (DDoS) attacks, which we can put on as a digital march,” explains one of the activists.

In addition to the DDoS attacks, protesters took to the streets, in face-to-face demonstrations, wearing the mask of the protagonist of the graphic novel V for Vendetta. The costume, used until today, is part of Anonymous because it identifies itself with the revolutionary Guy Fawkes, a participant in the Gunpowder Conspiracy.

Anonymous' actions became notable worldwide in 2010 after US government pressure against WikiLeaks, as well as the harassment of the political prisoner. Julian Assange. Banking institutions such as Visa, Paypal and Mastercard stopped funding the leak site, which led to numerous DDoS and other coordinated actions by activists.

Who is EterSec and how does the movement recruit in Brazil

protester wears anonymous mask along with antifa flag and shield written riot police with anarchist symbol
Interested in participating in Anonymous do not need to be from the Information Technology area, but rather agree and defend the same collective ideals. (Image: Cinthia Erdens Paiva/Shutterstock)

Since then, face-to-face demonstrations and virtual attacks have guided the actions of the collective, which has been divided into action cells, and today is organized under a philosophy of defense of democracy and individual freedom — and this is the first step to enter the Anonymous.

In addition, the EtherSec, based on hacktivism and cyberactivism, has lawyers, journalists, professors and even philosophers in the group. Activists explain to me that philosophical discussions, understanding contexts and articulating with the public are as important as the next defacement or data leak.

“The structure of Anonymous should not be thought of only as hackers”, comments one of them. “It is this diversity that sustains us, consolidates us, helps us to understand the society in which we operate. It is the diversity of knowledge that enriches our actions.”

How does someone join Anonymous?

You don't go to Anonymous and ask to enter – not least because there's nowhere to “reach”, an official place, for obvious reasons. It's usually Anonymous that goes after a potential candidate, through recommendations from one of the members they know (virtually or in person). And maybe he doesn't even know who he referred.

One of the voices explains to me that recruitment can take place through certain operations, such as the infamous #OpNewBlood, but that the invitation is usually done out of trust. "It ends up falling a lot in what people can do, what they are willing to do and what the collective needs", point out.

And that, even so, this trust is full of reservations: none of them know anything about the other but the nickname used. This is actually for protection. Activists explain that arrests that have occurred in the past, such as that of a leader of a foreign Anonymous cell, Commander X, would have caused more damage if the activist had known the whereabouts or identities of his colleagues.

Although they did not specify numbers, the cell believes that this is due to the country occupying much of the virtual space around the world. The group also explains that Brazil has immense membership and participation within Anonymous on a global scale.

In the case of EterSec, the cell is internationally articulated, between members of South America. The name, they make clear, is an inside joke, derived from the activist group Lulz Security — LulzSec, famous for leaking Sony data. The name, they also explain, has a certain relationship with the ether symbol, but this they think it is better not to explain to me.

Malware for political purposes

hacker with anonymous group mask pointing at you
EterSec considers that the ethics of virtual attacks is linked to the purpose of the action. (Image: gualtiero boffi/Shutterstock)

Unlike LulzSec, EterSec's cyberactivists hack not merely for fun, but on activist principles. Which, in fact, doesn't mean they don't have fun doing what they do. In Brazil, EterSec became famous after ransomware against Anatel, which at the time wanted to apply limitations on the fixed internet. “To this day, members of that group are part of the cell,” says one of the cyberactivists.

“When we made use of ransomware, we edited the message to make it clear what we wanted. The requirement is not the payment of money, but the change in the behavior of that government towards their population.”

Every EterSec attack starts, in a way, like a conventional hacker attack: they assess the vulnerabilities present in the targets and then plan the onslaught. During cases where the investigation calls for specific attacks, they develop their own applications themselves.

Hacktivists themselves explain that, from malware to trojans, none of the tools used by hackers are too immoral for operations, as long as the objective is political.

“It depends a lot on the target. In our lawsuit against the Colombian government, we used two software, Betcha, and WannaCry. We took the vulnerability part of one and the encryption of the other”, they point out. “But if necessary, we develop our own. Brazil has many talents in this area.”

But a consensus view among the cell is that targets are rarely decently protected, which may be a sad truth in the cybersecurity world, but not for them. “Some failures are even absurd. There are cases that we look at and think, it's not possible that they left it that way.”

They further explain that, by default, actions like FibBank's always lead to some kind of retaliation, which results in the need to protect themselves more. Something that, for them, is not exactly new. "The people who are so involved are already kind of fond of this world."

When is Anonymous really Anonymous?

hacker with mask and hoodie typing on notebook
Cybercriminals and self-seekers use Anonymous image to commit crimes or cash in on activists' fame. (Image: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock)

During the conversation, I recall that, in 2016, Anonymous was already facing problems with imposters using the collective image for their own benefit. “This is a recurrent problem here in Brazil, and in Latin America in general. Whenever Anonymous takes an action that receives notoriety, several pages appear promising leaked credit card data,” laments one of the activists. "This ends up tarnishing Anonymous' image."

EterSec warns that, in order to recognize when a cell is legitimate, it is necessary to note that they never take actions aimed at civil society. They explain: "A very simple way for us to verify if an action is going in favor of ideals is to ask ourselves: is it reaching a state agency or company that is acting in an authoritarian manner?"

In today's world, Anonymous' actions are directly linked to the defense of democracy. Or, in the cell's own words, the promotion of a “real democracy” — something increasingly at risk around the world.

“We live in representative republics”, they affirm. “We don't live in real democracies. What happens is that we choose which governor will rule us for four years.”

The group still sees the system as a better option against other regimes, but it does not support any partisan love or illusion. "We know that whoever climbs onto the stage already arrives there with their tail stuck."

At the end of the interview, I comment that one of the most common terms searched on Google is whether Anonymous is good or bad. They laugh and answer me:

“Good people don't have to be afraid of us. It's bad people who need it.”

Cover Image: Cineberg/Shutterstock

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