The night before Michael Isikoff came to Dallas, I got an e-mail from Barrett Brown. “Apparently Isikoff is freaked out about having another journalist here,” it said. “But I’ll secretly record the proceedings and provide to you.”
A little context: Michael Isikoff is a former investigative reporter for Newsweek. Now he’s a correspondent for NBC News. He flew in from Washington, D.C., in late February with a producer and a cameraman to talk to Brown about his involvement with a notorious international group of hackers called Anonymous that recently used their Low Orbit Ion Cannon to bring down the websites of MasterCard and Visa and the Swedish government, among others, because the institutions had made moves hostile to WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange. It’s complicated—as Isikoff would learn. But more on that in a moment.
Me, I first encountered Brown in 1998, when he was a 16-year-old intern at the Met, a now-defunct alternative weekly where I worked. Brown and I had not kept in contact, but last year he returned to Dallas from New York City, we got reacquainted, and he wrote a story for this magazine. I’d been talking with him for a few weeks about his work with Anonymous, about how they’d exposed a scheme by a government cyber-security contractor to conspire with Bank of America to ruin the careers of journalists sympathetic to WikiLeaks, about how Anonymous helped the protesters in Tunisia and other Arab countries. I wasn’t about to miss out on the surreal scene of Isikoff and a television crew descending on Brown’s apartment.
I had been to Brown’s Uptown bachelor pad before. The 378-square-foot efficiency was dimly lit and ill-kept. Dirty dishes were piled high in the sink. A taxidermied bobcat lay on the kitchen counter. Brown is an inveterate smoker—Marlboro 100’s, weed, whatever is at hand—and the place smelled like it. An overflowing ashtray sat on his work table, which stood just a few feet from his bed in the apartment’s “living room.” Two green plastic patio chairs faced the desk. I left with the feeling that I needed a bath.
On the morning of Isikoff’s visit, though, I see that much has changed. Brown’s mother, having heard that company was coming, paid to have the carpet shampooed. The kitchen is now tidy. The bobcat has been hung on a wall, replaced on the kitchen counter by a bowl of fresh fruit. A lamp casts a warm glow on Brown’s work table. His 24-year-old girlfriend, a graphic designer named Nikki Loehr, sits on his bed with a laptop. She borrowed a framed Peter Saul drawing worth tens of thousands of dollars from her client, Dallas art dealer Chris Byrne, to spruce up the place. Brown, of course, would have none of it. Bobcat? Yes. Fancy artwork? Television viewers might get the wrong impression. The drawing sits in his closet.
Isikoff’s cameraman and producer are the first through the door. Then the man himself, suited, gray hair, short. We shake hands. It feels awkward.
Ever the congenial host, Brown introduces us. “Tim’s a friend,” he says to Isikoff. “He’s writing a story. You guys can have a turf war if you want, but I’m on day four of withdrawals from opiates, so I don’t want to get involved.” Only, because he speaks in a low, rapid baritonal mumble, like he is the world’s worst auctioneer, it comes out: “Timsafriendhes‑writingastoryyouguyscanhaveaturfwarifyou
Having mumbled the introduction, Brown steps out onto the tiny second-floor patio to smoke a cigarette, leaving me with Loehr, Isikoff, and his two-man crew. The guys from D.C. stare at me.
“What did he just say?” the producer asks.
“Barrett said that I’m a friend of his and that he’s on day four of withdrawals from opiates.”
Brown has used heroin at various points in his life. On the night about a year ago that he met Loehr, in fact, at the Quarter Bar on McKinney Avenue, he told her he was an ex-junkie. “Ex” is a relative prefix. To manage his addiction, Brown was prescribed Suboxone, a semisynthetic opioid that is meant to be taken orally, but he had been dissolving the film strips in water and shooting the solution to produce a more satisfying high. On the Sunday before Isikoff’s visit, Brown showed me the track marks on his arm. He said he had run out of Suboxone, though, and was saving his last dose because he didn’t want to suffer through withdrawals during his big television interview. Then Isikoff rescheduled from Tuesday to Thursday. Brown couldn’t wait. Now he is hurting.
Isikoff and his crew seem to have trouble processing it all. Was Brown kidding about the drugs? Who is this friend again? And will he have to interpret everything Brown says? They are too befuddled to fight any “turf war.” In any case, Brown returns from his smoke break and launches into a primer on Anonymous, sending the cameraman scrambling to set up his lights. The producer clips mics to Brown and Isikoff. I slip into the kitchen, where I can eat the grapes that Brown’s mother bought for him while I watch the proceedings.
For the next five hours, Brown explains the concept of Anonymous (an interview session topped off with a B-roll stroll for the cameraman on the nearby Katy Trail). Several factors complicate this process. First, Brown lives under the flight path to Love Field. Southwest Airlines jets continually drown out Brown’s mumblings, forcing the producer to close the patio’s sliding glass door. The bright camera lights proceed to heat up the small room in no time. Exacerbating the stuffiness, Brown chain-smokes flamboyantly throughout the entire interview.
Second, Brown’s computer setup makes it tough to ride shotgun. His parents gave him a large Toshiba Qosmio laptop, but Brown used it to play video games before spilling Dr Pepper on the keyboard. It is out of commission. He does his work on a Sony Vaio notebook that’s so small it looks like a toy. Brown claims to have 20/16 vision, so the tiny screen doesn’t bother him, but Isikoff has to squint and lean in as Brown takes him on a tour of Internet Relay Chat rooms, or IRC, where Anonymous does much of its work. (I tag along, from my iPad in the kitchen, just a few feet away. When they enter a room where Anonymous discusses its operations in Libya, I type, “Say hi to Isikoff for me.” Isikoff: “Who’s that?” Brown, laughing: “That’s a writer I know.” As they click over to another room, I pop in again: “Isikoff is clearly a government agent.” So I don’t help, either.)
Finally, there is the inscrutable topic itself. Anonymous is sometimes referred to in the mainstream media as a group or a collective—the Christian Science Monitor went with “a shadowy circle of activists”—but Anonymous, per se, doesn’t exist. It has no hierarchy, no leadership. So even though Bloomberg and others have called Brown a spokesman for the group (which, again, isn’t a group at all), Brown denies having any position within Anonymous.
“Anonymous is a process more than it is a thing,” Brown tells Isikoff. “I can’t speak on behalf of Anonymous, because there’s no one who can authorize me to do that.”
When he explains Anonymous to a newbie, Brown relishes the inevitable confusion and will toggle between sincerity and irony to heighten it. Until you’ve spent some time with him, it’s hard to know what to believe. When you’ve gotten to know him better, it’s even harder.
“You have to remember,” Brown says, reclining in the green lawn chair, one arm slung over its back, a cigarette dangling between his fingers, “we’re the Freemasons. Only, we’ve got a sense of humor. You have to wield power with a sense of humor. Otherwise you become the FBI.” Here Brown is half-kidding.
Later, when Isikoff gets confused by the online lingo used by Anonymous, Brown says, “I think we’ve done more than Chaucer to enrich the English language. We should get a medal. Where’s the medal, Michael?” Here he is entirely kidding.
Brown first began collaborating online with Anons in 2006, though an informal organization didn’t exist at the time—much less a formal one that denies its own existence. These were just kids idling on websites such as EncyclopediaDramatica.com and the random imageboard /b/ on 4chan.org. They were interested in arcane Japanese web culture and, of course, pictures of boobs. “Everyone there was anonymous,” Brown says, intending a lowercase “a.” “It just started as a joke.”
Brown was part of what he calls “an elite team of pranksters” that did whatever they could to make people miserable on Second Life. They developed a weapon that propagated giant Marios until certain areas of the online universe crashed. They would go into a concert and produce a loud screaming that no one could stop. They went into nightclubs for furries, people who get off by wearing animal costumes, and hassled them.
But Anonymous, with a capital “A,” didn’t coalesce into a recognizable phenomenon until 2008, when the Church of Scientology tried to remove an embarrassing YouTube video of a wild-eyed Tom Cruise talking about how awesome Scientology is. Anonymous claimed the move was censorship and, in response, published its own YouTube video. Over images of swiftly moving clouds, a computer-generated voice declared war on the church. That war, Project Chanology, continues to this day.
Anonymous’ efforts to bring down the Church of Scientology and other enemies have evolved to include all manner of tactics, both online and off, but the group’s main weapon is the Low Orbit Ion Cannon. (For clarity’s sake, I will hereinafter refer to Anonymous as a group, even though various members of the group have repeatedly stressed to me that it isn’t one.) The Low Orbit Ion Cannon, or LOIC, is a piece of software. Right now, you can download it from any number of easily accessible servers and install it on your computer. Launch it, and you just joined a botnet.
A botnet is a number of computers—could be hundreds, could be tens of thousands spread across the planet—that follow the instructions of a central command. Until Anonymous came along, botnets were generally assembled by bad guys, organizations like the Russian mafia, Chinese hackers. They build botnets on the sly, installing malware on computers that turns them into zombies without their owners’ knowledge. Each zombie can fire thousands of requests per second at a target website. So while you’re working on that cover sheet for your TPS report, your computer is part of a joint effort to overwhelm a company’s server and crash its website. That effort to crash a site is called a Distributed Denial of Service attack, or DDoS. The bad guys use DDoS attacks to extort money, but they can also use their botnets to send spam and steal people’s identities. In 2009, the antivirus software firm Symantec said it had detected nearly 7 million botnets on the internet.
Anonymous was the first group to build an operational voluntary botnet. By running the LOIC on your computer, you are, essentially, declaring your allegiance to Anonymous. You donate part of your computer’s processing power to the cause. That cause—or, if you prefer, the target—is determined by rough consensus among Anons.
If the Church of Scientology gave Anonymous its first major target the group could agree on, then Visa and MasterCard gave Anonymous its first big kill, the trophy that made the world take notice. Last year, at the urging of Senator Joe Lieberman, who heads the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, PayPal froze WikiLeaks’ account, and Amazon booted the organization off its servers. Visa and MasterCard stopped processing donations to the organization, saying in a press release that they were taking this action because WikiLeaks was engaged in illegal activity. Never mind that WikiLeaks had not even been charged with a crime. Anonymous responded with Operation Payback.
Which member of Anonymous first suggested that MasterCard should be a target of the LOIC? There’s no telling. But they discussed it in an Internet Relay Chat channel that anyone could have joined—that, in fact, anyone can still join. Anonymous uses IRC because it conceals identities and because it establishes a technical barrier to entry. Though anyone can join the conversation, only a certain type of person will. There’s software to download. There’s lingo to learn. And so on.
Sometimes Anonymous will actually conduct an online poll to determine the target of a DDoS. It’s very democratic. But the final decision about where to point the Low Orbit Ion Cannon is made by an IRC channel operator, an Anon who has the power to declare the official topic of the channel. As with the animals on Orwell’s farm, all Anonymous are equal, but some are more equal than others. It’s hard, obviously, to get a reliable estimate on the number of those elite Anons who are channel operators. Brown told me it could be a few dozen. When those—don’t call them leaders—change the topic of an IRC channel, all the LOIC-armed computers linked to that channel will automatically fire at the target. That’s when embarrassing things happen to ill-prepared companies (and governments, too).
The great thing about Anonymous’ botnet is, it never sleeps. With involuntary botnets, users turn off their zombie computers when they go to bed at night. The botnet army never fights at full strength. Anonymous’ voluntary botnet might be small, but it packs a powerful punch.
When the Anons working on Operation Payback pointed the LOIC at MasterCard’s website on December 8, 2010, it crashed in about five minutes. Visa crumbled in 30 seconds. Anonymous didn’t target the servers that process credit card transactions, just the companies’ websites. The key to the attack was the realization by Anonymous that Visa and MasterCard had left themselves vulnerable by locating all their servers in the same general area. Anonymous had discussed attacking Amazon, too, because it booted WikiLeaks off its servers, but Amazon houses its servers in data centers all over the globe. Take one down, and the traffic gets rerouted. Amazon stays online. Not so with Visa and MasterCard.
How many computers did it take to bring down the credit card giants? It’s impossible to peg a precise number. But during the four weeks when Operation Payback was at its height, Gregg Housh says the LOIC was downloaded 60,000 times. Housh is 34 and lives in the Boston area, but he was born in Bedford and lived in North Texas until he was 16. He is intimately aware of how Anonymous works but says he doesn’t participate in any of its illegal activities. In the days following the attack on MasterCard, the task of explaining all the forgoing to reporters largely fell to him. He doesn’t mind speaking to the press and using his real name because, as an organizer of Project Chanology (he and a small group of collaborators posted that first Anonymous YouTube video with the clouds), his name became public in lawsuits filed by the Church of Scientology. Too, he spent three months in federal prison in his 20s for software piracy. Authorities are already well-acquainted with him.
“Everyone just knows that Gregg is willing to talk to The Man,” Housh says. “A lot of news organizations, the New York Times, don’t want to go with anonymous sources. They have policies against it.” On December 10, two days after Operation Payback hit MasterCard, Housh did 37 interviews. “I’ll tell you, man, I work from home, so it makes it a little easier for me to do that, but it was becoming too much. And in comes the cavalry, Barrett, to take some of the load. That was nice.”
Housh met Brown online in February of last year, after Brown had written a story for the Huffington Post explaining Anonymous’ actions in Australia. The government there was attempting to ban three specific forms of internet pornography: small-breasted porn (deemed by the Australian Classification Board too similar to underage porn), female ejaculation (deemed to be a form of urination), and cartoon porn (duh). Anonymous, in response, launched Operation Titstorm, which included not only a DDoS attack that brought down the government’s main website, but a torrent of porn-related e-mails, faxes, and prank phone calls to government officials. In his HuffPo piece, Brown explained the larger context of Anonymous’ actions. After referring to William Gibson’s 1984 sci-fi novel, Neuromancer, which popularized the term “cyberspace,” Brown wrote the following in an essay titled “Anonymous, Australia, and the Inevitable Fall of the Nation-State”:
“Having taken a long interest in the subculture from which Anonymous is derived and the new communicative structures that make it possible, I am now certain that this phenomenon is among the most important and under-reported social developments to have occurred in decades, and that the development in question promises to threaten the institution of the nation-state and perhaps even someday replace it as the world’s most fundamental and relevant method of human organization.”