David Bozzini: Gabriella Coleman on the ethnography of digital politics – part 2

David Bozzini is a research fellow at the Graduate Center, CUNY, where he is researching on Eritrean deserters movements and on the resistance to digital surveillance. He co-edits Tsantsa, the journal of the Swiss Ethnological Society.

Gabriella Coleman is an anthropologist and holds the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. She wrote about the free software movement in her book Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetic of Hacking. After years of researching Anonymous and following its online discussions and debates, she published Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous (Verso, 2014).

Anonymous, leaks, and contradictions
This interview is divided in two parts. The first part delves into the hackers’ worlds and the historical process related to their political formations. The second part is devoted to recent political actions of hacker groups and the Anonymous collective in particular. Gabriella Coleman presents and discusses their tactics and their tools, their modus operandi, and the limits of the movement.

In terms of repertoire of contention, we are witnessing a politics of the leaks. Of course, Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks have contributed considerably to such trend. Still, isn’t this a more profound and widespread tendency? For example, hacktivists such as Telecomix have been exposing corporation sales that might be illegal. I am thinking of Blue Coat servers and services used by Syrian and Bahrain governments for instance. The politics of leaks go far beyond state secrecy and top-secret cables, as they also target the corporate world. At the same time, the relationship between the corporate world and the hacktivists might also be understood in terms of technology transfers. Hackers working in the industry can transfer some knowledge (and potential exploits) to comrades they are working with on some activist projects. Do you think such politics of leaks are currently reframing the porosity of the boundaries between state, capitalism, and citizens’ political protests?

Right, that’s a great question. There is a total back-and-forth between what people learn in corporations and what they use for hacktivism. There is no hard line. In fact, many hackers steal time at work to work at their activism. But again, this is when region matters. In Silicon Valley, you have to work too hard and all your values are oriented towards the start-up. So Silicon Valley does not encourage an activist culture sensibility, whereas in other regions in North America, like in Montreal or parts of Europe where work is not so life-consuming, you have time and space to dedicate to activism.

Hackers create really forward-thinking technology: for instance, the Indymedia.com platform in 1990 to 2000 was a “social web” before the social web. At the time, no one foresaw how much money it would cost to scale and to provide free services. So there are all these discourses about how the digital condition and the Internet makes everything cheap—anyone can publish, we can all have access—but in fact to create a platform like Facebook, to maintain it and to maintain the servers, is extraordinarily expensive. Hacktivists are trying now to figure out how to scale services. Because it’s so difficult to do so, part of the solution is just using encryption. Hackers build alternatives—say, a full-fledged email system with encryption—but they also build technologies that allow them to be parasitical on systems. It’s less of a problem to use Gmail or Facebook if we have a good encryption to use with these systems.


I want to understand better what appears to me as a major contradiction in hacker politics. Isn’t it indeed a contradiction in values and practices when a hacker, who cherishes and protects privacy, commits himself or herself to cracking accounts and doxxing1 some people or some companies? Do we have to consider this a classic contradiction between what people claim and what people do?

I think part of it can be explained as a contradiction, but in other instances, it’s not. Here is an example: a young person, a female—I mention that because people think that there are no females in Anonymous—helped dox a police officer who pepper-sprayed a woman during Occupy. According to her, we had the right to know who this person is, as he is a public officer, he had a nametag, and she is just making that nametag more visible, and also digging in to see what his public record was.

As far as I see, there are three types of doxxing. One type, which is highly responsible and contained, is very selective to a point where I am not even sure you can call it privacy violation; it is very similar to what a journalist might do.2 The second is exemplified by Operation BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), where Anonymous was supporting protesters for the right to protest in BART stations. BART wanted to turn off cell phone access, and some hackers hacked into BART and released customer data. That was not OK: customers had nothing to do with BART censorship. Now the justification used by some was, “How else are we going to get on CNN? We sacrificed someone for the greater good,” and, “People do this all the time in politics.” The third type is when people do some really awful, malicious things, when they getting access to data that can be harmful to many—they are doxxing very irresponsibly.

Are dynamics in hacker group similar to those of a social movement?

Hackers and other advocates are driving and nourishing a full-blown social movement centered on fighting for civil liberties.  Like any sufficiently large political movement such as environmentalism, you have moderates like Greenpeace and more direct action wings like Sea Shepherd [Conservation Society]. Why wouldn’t you expect to have the same diversity among hackers?

And then again, there are some technologies like Tor that are politically neutral—except for a commitment to privacy in this case. Tor developers are not saying, “We are trying to bring down the state; we are against capitalism.” People who contribute individually to hacking have very, very different reasons for contributing. Indeed, in the case of Tor or Tails and many other projects, they are often also very cautious not to disclose a broader political statement. The same is the case for Debian, a free software project I studied. Then, there is a class of projects like the Pirate Party, Anonymous, Telecomix, which exceed a narrowly defined politics of free software or privacy. But still, their political configurations are always changing. There is no single, well-defined enduring political ideology or dogma.

The EFF surveillance self-defense logo. Secure your online communications now!

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) surveillance self-defense logo. Secure your online communications now!

Can you briefly present Anonymous? What kind of actions do they perform, and what values are they promoting?

Anonymous is a name and a set of symbols that are currently used by geeks, hackers, and hacktivists to organize collective political action around the globe from Cambodia to Montreal. They use various political interventions that combine consciousness-raising tactics with propaganda making, with targeted operational interventions from hacking to assisting other hacktivists.

Anonymous is particularly difficult to define not only because there are many different groups operating under the handle “Anonymous” but also because it has morphed, changed, and transformed quite a bit over the course of its political existence. While all social movements are open to transformation, Anonymous bumps that up to a significant degree. So what was true about Anonymous in a certain era is not necessarily true today, although there are some vectors of continuity. Those forms of continuity come in three forms. One is personal: there are important actors who stick around. The second is imagery: a style and aesthetics of communicating. And then the third and final one has to do with repertoires of intervention and tactics.

They have a set toolbox: it is hacking, DDoSing,3 doxxing, working with journalists, et cetera. A huge, huge part of it is what I have called “the weapons of the geeks.” In some instances, it’s direct weapons: hacking techniques. In other instances, they use technology indirectly, discussing and organizing on an IRC channel.4 This is what makes them different from other activists who may not be using these tactics and tools. In fact, hacker tactics and tools are not widely used. There is no “digital generation” that makes use of hacker techniques. Instead, it is a small number of technologists who are deploying them.

Do they share these techniques—these tools and hacks—among themselves, or do they organize in the knowledge that one can do certain things the others cannot and then pool their resources?

I discuss this is in my book. On the one hand, they triage: you’re better at this, I am better at this, so each of us goes off and does their own thing. But they teach each other as well. So it’s a constant back-and-forth: people specialize, but there is teamwork and they help each other out. You have newbies coming into IRC channels and asking how-to, but there is a threshold because you have to know something to be able to get into IRC channels; you cannot be a total neophyte.

But the thing with technology is that it’s endlessly complicated and you can’t master everything. So there is a lot of exchange of information and learning. That said, hacking groups have to be very secretive as well, and who gets in and why is very complex to understand. You have to let go off secrets before you are given secrets. So, when you are engaging in illegal behavior with secret groups, the exchange and entry is far, far more complicated than with Open Source communities because you have to trust people, vet them, and you have to prove your work.

What is your view on Anonymous tactics? What are the limits of their modalities of political actions?

What makes them strong is their unpredictability. They can’t even predict themselves. With every other political entity, you can expect them to do x, y, or z. Even when they were using predictable tactics, who they would target and what they would target next was based on world events and opportunities, not on a predesigned script. It is like a soap opera: “What’s next?” And this is good to get media attention, because the media get tired very easily. Anonymous helped other movements and causes as they emerged, and they did so in very specific targeted ways. For example, if they brought attention to a single rape case, as they did with Steubenville, they helped transform it from a local issue into a national issue.

No one can solve all contemporary political problems, but nevertheless it’s very important to create avenues for people to engage in politics and make a difference: these avenues can be anything from a political party to a social movement, and Anonymous is one such domain. Some entered into politics through Anonymous for the first time, so it’s a kind of factory that helps generate activists.

Anonymous has contributed some novel tactics to the hacktivist arsenal, and in this regard direct action leaking is key to highlight. Corporations are very shielded/secretive, and it is awful hard to access about them, and hacking is sometimes the only way to gain evidence of corporate abuse. Anonymous provided a template for hacking to leak, and other activists have followed in this mold, notably Phineas Phisher, which I explore in the new epilogue to my book.

I think the limits of hacking are also its strengths. In order for hacking to work, you really need to protect yourself, so you can’t form ties to the people you are interacting with because that’s bad operational security. At the same time, they need some teamwork, they need some chemistry, they need some trust. But to execute a hack with limited security risk requires severing such friendships and ties and breaking up the group entirely after the operation is done.

And then of course another thing that is really remarkable is that there is a lot of experimental energy in Anonymous. Again, this experimental energy has led to success and collateral damage. For example, when Anonymous was DDoSing PayPal in support of WikiLeaks because of they had joined the financial blockade preventing donations … In that moment, companies pulled all the plugs, and this made a lot of people who were against the blockade initially show up and lend their support to Anonymous. People were saying, “Use Low Orbit Ion Cannon, it’s safe. It’ll be fine; we have safety on numbers,” but that didn’t turn out to be true. They were just seizing on the moment, energized by the “now let’s do it, let’s get involved, fire your canon,” but people did not get enough security training to do that … Eventually, some people’s lives were ruined because the movement was rushing forward without securing their bases enough.

Still of a video message from Anonymous (#OpPaypal)

Still of a video message from Anonymous (#OpPayPal)

How much suspicion and paranoia are experienced in Anonymous?

Paranoia is common among leftist activist groups as there is a known long history of informants. Still, it would have benefited an operation such as AntiSec if those involved had been more paranoid. There is a lot of trust in people within the hacker scene, but paranoia surges in punctuated moments for sure. And then of course when Sabu, a member of high-profile hacker group LulzSec, was outed as a government informant who had collected and delivered evidence against the group members, paranoia sky-rocketed—not that it did not exist before; there were all sorts of accusations, but after the revelation, accusations became more common. A lot of energy and time is spent on dissecting who might be an informant and how you would know.

The LulzSec logo

The LulzSec logo

Are people getting ostracized in Anonymous?

People have been ostracized in Anonymous, like Barrett Brown. He is a journalist who got involved and is serving a jail sentence for what many activists and Anonymous participants feel is an unfair set of charges. At the time he participated in Anonymous, he was marginalized and ostracized because, put simply, he wasn’t anonymous. He participated using his real name, which violated a core ethic to not seek any fame or attention. Eventually, people told him, “Screw you, you’re bringing us too much self-promotion here.” So people can be marginalized for reasons that have nothing to do with suspicion of snitching (and to reiterate, currently there is tremendous support for Barrett Brown, who is serving an unfair and long jail sentence).

But many accusations are directed at people who are suspected of being rats. I sometimes get asked if Anonymous is more susceptible to infiltration. Given one can contribute to Anonymous from the comfort of one’s home (or CIA office), yes, it is awful easy to infiltrate. But it is much harder for these infiltrators to gain information about participants. What protects you is that you can truly control what information you reveal about yourself which is simply impossible to do offline. This is why I have always said there is some real strengths to the online organizing. Psychologically, it may be rather hard to never share anything about your AFK (Away from Keyboard) life, but it is possible. You have to be very disciplined. In face-to-face organization, informants can learn everything about you simply by being with you.


1. According to Know Your Meme, doxxing is “the practice of investigating and revealing a target subject’s personally identifiable information, such as home address, workplace information and credit card numbers, without consent. The word is derived from ‘docs,’ which is a shortened term for ‘documents.’”

2. See the epilogue of Gabriella Coleman’s 2015 paperback edition of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous.

3. Distributed denial of service (DDos) is a type of computer attack targeting a server by sending enough requests to interrupt its services (for instance, blocking access to a website).

4. Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is a protocol used for chatting on a channel with other users.

Cite as: Bozzini, David, and Gabriella Coleman. 2015. “Gabriella Coleman on the ethnography of digital politics – part 2.” FocaalBlog. 5 November. www.focaalblog.com/2015/11/05/david-bozzini-gabriella-coleman-on-the-ethnography-of-digital-politics-part-2.