FBI Tracks Internet Activists Known As 'Anonymous'

Last December, the Internet activists attacked known as "Anonymous" attacked the websites of PayPal, Visa, and others that they perceived as enemies of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. A federal grand jury in California is looking into the attacks, and the FBI has confiscated several computers.

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It was a couple of months ago that activists who called themselves Anonymous attacked websites belonging to companies that refuse to do business with WikiLeaks. Now Anonymous may face federal charges. A federal grand jury here in California is looking at the website attacks, and the FBI has confiscated computers in several homes and at least one dorm room. NPR's Martin Kaste has more.

MARTIN KASTE: The members of Anonymous like to stay that way.

Your name is Owen. Can I get your whole name?

OWEN: Mmmm... Owen.

KASTE: Owen wouldn't even give us his real phone number - we had this conversation through Google Voice. And it's not as if he has to hide from the FBI - they already found him.

OWEN: They came in through the back door and through the side door and they told me just, you know, to shut up, and handcuffed me and put me in a chair while they continued to clear the house, as they called it.

KASTE: Owen says the FBI took his computers, and he assumes it's because he administers online chat rooms where Anonymous members have planned their cyber-attacks. We found Owen through Barrett Brown, a journalist who's deeply involved with Anonymous.

Mr. BARRETT BROWN (Journalist): I can tell you that I'm not a hacker, and that the people who do certain operations do not go by their own names, and even I myself do not know who they are.

KASTE: Brown says he's attracted to what he sees as the movement's resistance to oppression. Just in the last week, there have been attacks on government web sites in Italy and Yemen. To Brown, it's like something out of the civil rights era.

Mr. BROWN: Rosa Parks, you know. Well, I mean Rosa Parks was a lone individual who was obviously much braver, you know. But, I mean, people who in any way violate some social contract that exists, legally, I would compare it to that.

KASTE: Anonymous made its boldest move in December, during the uproar over Wikileaks. Companies such as PayPal and Visa had refused to conduct WikiLeaks' financial transactions, so Anonymous stepped in and took revenge, jamming the companies' websites. Some called this cyber-vandalism, but Brown prefers a nobler analogy.

Mr. BROWN: It's like a storefront sit-in, for instance, or people who refused to obey orders by a company to not sit in certain sections.

KASTE: That analogy doesn't convince Russ Brown, the unit chief at the FBI's cyber criminal section.

Mr. RUSS BROWN (Unit Chief, FBI Cyber Criminal Section): If the sit-in doesn't allow business to occur, or prevents a company from functioning, then it's going to be deemed illegal because you're breaking the law by preventing a company or some entity from functioning.

KASTE: The sit-in analogy gets more sympathy from John Palfrey, a professor of law at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He says the laws about this kind of thing are murky, and society still needs to figure out what kinds of online protests are acceptable.

Professor JOHN PALFREY (Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society): I am very much in the camp that said we have to think about what is activism in a digital era and how can we enable it in ways that are akin to a sit-in. On the other hand, we plainly need limits.

KASTE: Those limits are being constantly tested by the cyber-activists. About a week ago, some members of Anonymous took offense at a computer security company called HB Gary. They say it was researching Anonymous, and was getting its facts wrong. So they hacked the company, and hacked it hard. They took over its website, they stole thousands of emails and, adding insult to injury, they commandeered the CEO's Twitter feed.

Owen, the Anonymous chat-room administrator, admits that to some this might look like vigilantism.

OWEN: If you wanted to put an exact definition on it, it could be defined as such. But am I going to view it as being vigilantism? No.

KASTE: Of course, vigilantism is exactly why Owen doesn't want his name on the radio. The FBI knows who he is, but he says there are many other people out there who also don't approve of what's gone on inside his chat rooms, and he wants to make sure he stays anonymous to them.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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