100 Years Worth of Federal Prison Charges for Alleged 'Hactivist'?
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Brown’s commentary had always been attuned to civil liberties, the erosion of Constitutional rights, what he saw as an inept or complicit media structure— and the impact of the Internet on all of these issues.
As one might expect from this pedigree, Brown began writing quite favorably about WikiLeaks and other pro-public-accountability forms of digital protest. Brown claimed to have been in contact with a number of the activists who, in 2008, launched the first coordinated action associated with Anonymous: Operation Chanology. It began with a bizarre interview that appeared on YouTube, showing actor Tom Cruise extolling Scientology, that was leaked by a disaffected former church member. The Church claimed copyright violation, asserting the video was solely intended for internal distribution to church members and threatened YouTube with litigation.
When YouTube removed the video, Anonymous posted a video of their own decrying censorship. Then Anonymous launched a sustained campaign of (the now familiar) denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks against Scientology websites, together with prank calls to Scientology offices worldwide and barrages of “black faxes” that tie up receiving machines and deplete their ink reserves. Anonymous’s brand of mischievous activism was born.
The Church of Scientology fought back by publicly naming one of the publishers of Anonymous’s response video in a civil suit. That publisher was Gregg Housh. Since he had already been outed, Housh was then willing to assume the role of a go-to spokesperson (or “namefag”) for those seeking answers about the hacker collective.
“I remember when we first started [targeting Scientology],” recalls Housh. “I got to this weird point only a few weeks into [the operation], where some of the teenage ex-scientologists had started convincing me of just how evil this organization was… We started thinking about this as an actual cause. From then on it just kept going.”
Housh is describing his transformation into a “moralfag,” jargon for Anons who see Anonymous as a tool for doing good and for holding powerful people and organizations accountable to “the people.”
“I was told very clearly that we needed to stop ruining [Anonymous’s] ‘bad name,’” Housh claims, referring to the immature, joker ethos that pervaded the collective at that time. “I was staring at my screen, and just thought, ‘God damn it. This is wrong.’”
All this took place before Housh and Brown met. What happened next, though, would thrust Brown into the spotlight, where he would eventually find himself in the crosshairs of the federal government.
In 2010, WikiLeaks began publishing a cache of hundreds of thousands of leaked unclassified yet sensitive State Department memos. Rattled, the U.S. government went into damage-control mode. It launched a high-stakes media campaign, aiming to set WikiLeaks apart from traditional media entities (like magazines and newspapers who published the same material) in order to criminalize its actions. U.S. lawmakers and government-friendly pundits accused the website and its founder, Julian Assange, of everything from “ treason” (despite his not being an American citizen) to acting as a “ high-tech terrorist.”
Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) used the power of his office to pressure PayPal to freeze WikiLeaks’s account, to persuade Amazon to boot the site off its servers, and to get Visa and MasterCard to stop processing donations. All this despite First Amendment free-speech protections—and though neither WikiLeaks nor anyone associated with the group had been charged with, much less convicted of, a crime.
In response, Anonymous began to organize Operation Payback. As with the campaign against the Church of Scientology, Anonymous employed what is called a Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC). That’s a piece of installed software which connects your computer to a botnet—a network of computers that can be linked to obey instructions from one central authority.