Over the last few days, the hacking group, “Anonymous” have been in the public eye for a variety of fairly high-profile acts. However, despite the current media focus on this group, people don’t generally seem to know too much about them or their activities.

Numerous internet crazes, colloquially known as “memes”, are said to have originated on the 4chan community website. The messageboards have no registration system and it is possible to post a message using any identity that you wish to. However, the majority of people simply leave this section blank and their post is assigned the moniker “Anonymous”. There are a variety of sections of the site, but the most significant is the section assigned to random discussions. It is that part of the site for which anything goes, within reason. The nature of the site means that discussions lurch from topic to topic and, give that most people appear anonymous, the opinions voiced can become quite offensive.

It is stated that it was within these parts of the board that initial discussions took place regarding a computer based attack on the Church of Scientology. It is fairly easy to see how some bored and technically savvy computer users could view the oft-mocked religious organisation as a fun target. It may be that then filled with the confidence and bravado of their success, the seeds for further such attacks were planted.

The layers of rumour and truth are entwined and cannot be easily unravelled, but however they evolved, Anonymous are now a force to be reckoned with.

Anonymous are often compared to a terrorist organisation. That seems a little over-the-top, however the comparison to a group like al-Qaeda is fairly useful. The effectiveness of al-Qaeda lies in it being reduced to an ideology more than a members club. Anybody can cause a terrorist incident and label themselves as al-Qaeda, without ever having been in contact with the group whatsoever. Similarly, anyone can launch a cyber attack and identify themselves as being part of Anonymous. There is no entrance exam.

It is therefore very difficult to ascertain which attack is by the true Anonymous and which are by wannabe groups. But, in reality, it doesn’t really matter. Anonymous, with their “we are legion” tag, is more like an open club that anyone can walk into and out of as they see fit.

On 3rd February, Anonymous released a recording of members of the FBI and Scotland Yard discussing a multinational cybercrime investigation. It is unclear how they obtained the recording, but it appears that they hacked an email account belonging to one of the parties and obtained the details and PIN of how to log into the conference call. It is a pretty impressive coup and an embarrassing situation for the authorities. The hunter becomes the hunted. The unsaid truth is that the hackers are unlikely to have simply accessed the source and then immediately hit the pot of gold. There will be many other confidential calls and emails that have been recorded or retained. They could contain anything.

Make no mistake, the Anonymous phone leak is nothing but a show of strength. They have managed to compromise discussions regarding an international investigation into their own group. Despite what is being said by the authorities on both sides of the Atlantic, this is a big deal. It is clear that when a vast proportion of industry and the infrastructure of both Government and the security services are heavily reliant on computers, those who can manipulate computers to such an extent that they can do with them whatever they want become masters of the universe.

Similarly on 7th February, the Russian arm of Anonymous uploaded hundreds of emails apparently showing that the Kremlin funds a youth group who, apparently in return, boost pro-Putin coverage on the Internet and discredit rivals. This is particularly damaging given that there is a presidential vote on 4th March. The effect of Anonymous cannot be underestimated. Are they about to play a part in the downfall of the Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation?

So where will it end? Simply put, wherever they want it to. Whatever security methods are used, and however “big” the organisations involved are, if it is put together with a computer it can be taken apart with a computer – it just might take a while. But by promoting an open door policy, their numbers can swell if a potential “hit” takes the fancy of the community. Things can then happen very quickly indeed.

Hackers have been around since the very dawn of computers. It is just that they now can choose to call themselves Anonymous.