Those associated with the hacker collective Anonymous sometimes wear a Guy Fawkes mask.

Story highlights

Anonymous is an amorphous collective of hackers that are hard to define

Anyone can be a member and the group has no spokesperson

Anonymous has been making headlines since 2010, most recently attacking the FBI

The group claims to have leaked e-mails related to the Syrian president

CNN  — 

There’s been a lot of news over the past few days about the hacker collective Anonymous. Last Friday, the group claimed to have posted an internal FBI conference call discussing investigations into Anonymous and the FBI acknowledged the call was intended to be private. This week, Anonymous posted e-mails that it claims are from an adviser to the Syrian president, suggesting how Bashar al-Assad could downplay violence in the country when he was interviewed by Barbara Walters last summer.

So who is Anonymous?

Consider its motto: “We are Legion.”

In strict Merriam-Webster terms, legion means a group of fighters, a faceless army more powerful as a whole than each individual. Still maddeningly vague enough for you? That’s the point. Anonymous takes great pains to be undefinable and amorphous. Because its members are impossible to isolate as a single thing, they’ve been called pranksters and criminals. Some have dismissed them as nerds with too much free time.

There are others, though, who contend Anonymous is the future form of Internet-based social activism. They laud the “hactivists” for their actions.

Wired has called Anonymous a culture, complete with its own “aesthetics and values, art and literature, social norms and ways of production, and even its own dialectic language.”

As for the literal operation of Anonymous, becoming part of it is as simple as going onto its Internet Relay Chat forums and typing away. There are numerous Twitter accounts which claim to be affiliated with Anonymous, and more websites that post and repost (known as mirroring) Anonymous content than there is room to mention here. The real-life people involved in Anonymous could be behind their laptops anywhere, from an Internet café in Malaysia to a Michigan suburb. Anonymous appears to have no spokesperson or leader. One could participate for a minute or a day in a chat room, and then never go back again.

It is poor etiquette to ask in a chat forum for real names or identifying information behind someone’s IM handle. You just trust that the others’ intentions, for the most part, are to serve the whole. Online discussions can eventually wind toward a “vote” on whether to go after a target, which anyone in the chat can suggest, according to Gregg Housh, a Boston web developer who’s tried to explain Anonymous on many media outlets, including He says he’s not a spokesperson for Anonymous and that he merely observes Anonymous chats but doesn’t participate in its activities.

“If the group at that given time decides to go after a website and take it down, then that happens,” he said. “If the majority of the people chatting disagree and make their case, then it won’t happen.”

It’s an uphill battle verifying information for stories about Anonymous. Law enforcement is in an equally tricky spot when pursuing Anonymous participants if authorities believe they have violated the law. There have been several arrests involving alleged Anonymous members, several of them teenagers.

Over the past two years, Anonymous has been known primarily for attacks called DDOS, short for distributed denial of service, a kind of network stress test in which each attacker gives consent to have his or her computer linked to a bot net. The force of all those computers working together, focused on one site, overwhelms the targeted site’s server and consequently disrupts or takes the site down.

DDOSing is the Internet equivalent of standing behind a much bigger guy in a fight that you’ve started because you could never win the fight alone.

Anonymous most recently claimed to take offline sites belonging to the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice after an announcement that Megaupload fans were arrested. (What is Megaupload?)

DDOS attacks made Anonymous famous in 2010 when it targeted the sites of MasterCard, Visa and PayPal. Anonymous claimed online that it was lashing out at the corporations because they had stopped doing business with WikiLeaks. Read more about Operation Payback.

In 2010, WikiLeaks leaked hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. intelligence documents on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well nearly a quarter million State Department cables.

WikiLeaks editor and founder Julian Assange said at the time that he had no affiliation with Anonymous and nothing to do with the attacks.

Since then Anonymous has branched out across the world, or at least caught the attention of hackers everywhere. In November, it claimed in an online video to have obtained information about people in Mexico who were leading double lives as drug cartel helpers. Anonymous never released that information, yet by that time the sensational claim itself had drawn a huge amount of media attention to the group.

Anonymous grabbed many other headlines in 2011, notably claiming that it attacked government websites in Tunisia and Egypt as a way to show support for protesters during Arab Spring uprisings. A video – laced with Anonymous’ typical computer-voiceover – appeared online during the January 2011 revolution. It threatened Egyptian authorities if they attempted to censor Internet access and other freedoms.

“Anonymous is you. You will not be denied your right to free speech, free press, free association and your universal right to freely access information both in real life and on the Internet,” the voice said.

Anonymous had a hand in organizing and agitating in the Occupy movement throughout 2011. Protesters have been seen at Occupy demonstrations across the globe wearing Anonymous’ distinctive Guy Fawkes mask, the same icon that appeared this week on sites carrying the alleged e-mails related to Syria.