In one year, Barrett Brown made himself into one of the best-known public faces of the hacker collective Anonymous—and now he’s stepping away from the group.
“There’s little quality control in a movement like that, which was not a huge problem when the emphasis was on assisting with North African revolutions and those who came on board thus tended to be of a certain sort,” he told Ars this week.
“But as things like OpSony arise, you attract a lot of people whose interest is in fucking with video game companies—which is not to say that there aren’t legitimate reasons for OpSony or that the majority involved aren’t quality people, but to the extent that someone sits things out when we’re working to promote liberty and fight dictatorships but then hops on board when we start going after an electronics firm that’s perpetrated far lesser villainy, one has to question those peoples’ priorities.”
Brown has been an unofficial “spokesman” of sorts for Anonymous, a go-to guy whenever a news outlet needed a real name or a face to put on TV. He and another Anon, Gregg Housh, have become public symbols of a movement that largely cloaks itself in anonymity, hiding behind Guy Fawkes masks and Internet Relay Chat handles.
How many other Anons would sit for a lengthy profile of the sort featured in the March issue of Dallas’ Dmagazine that talks about Brown’s heroin use, his sexual escapades, and the reason he wears cowboy boots—while running a photo of him slumped in a chair beneath a stuffed bobcat? And that featured descriptions like this?
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.
Brown got publicly involved in Anonymous in early 2010, when the group launched Operation Titstorm and targeted the Australian government’s Web censorship proposals (which included a plan to ban depictions of nude small-breasted women who might resemble underage girls—hence the name of the operation). Brownwrote a piece for the Huffington Post at the time in which he saw the Anonymous attack as a new kind of “revolutionary engine” that might one day remake the world and even threaten the concept 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,” he wrote.
To help create this world of spontaneous communities linked only by shared goals and not by geography or ethnicity, Brown decided to help Anonymous in a public fashion after being contacted by Housh. He had a front-row seat for the late 2010 Anonymous ops targeting Middle Eastern regimes. “What I saw and did during the next few weeks convinced me that these sorts of efforts can and should be used to channel dissatisfaction with injustice into concrete action in opposition to such things,” he told me.
But it wasn’t the Anonymous Middle East ops that captured the world’s attention; it was the group’s pro-WikiLeaks attacks on financial firms that had cut off the site’s access to donations which led to international headlines. Anonymous staged denial of service attacks on MasterCard, Visa, and others—and the FBI got involved, eventually executing 40 search warrants against the group.
Meanwhile, HBGary Federal CEO Aaron Barr decided to “unmask” the supposed leadership of Anonymous, only to see the group break into his company’s computers, make off with his private e-mails, and expose some terribly shady goings-on to the light of day. Barr eventually resigned his job—but Anonymous gained even more press. Brown even took the lead role in a national NBC News segment on Anonymous earlier this year, one that called him “an underground commander in a new kind of war.” (The stuffed bobcat is visible in the background.)
“The fact that the FBI had just raided 40 alleged participants in DDoS attacks in conjunction with a sweeping international investigation into Anonymous even as Team Themis’ various criminal conspiracies were facilitated by the Justice Department and have thus far been ignored by ‘law enforcement,’ meanwhile, has reaffirmed my belief that the rule of law is void.”
What’s going to replace the rule of law? Private bands of citizens engaged in a “massive campaign of investigation and exposure.” While Anonymous could do some of the work, the group seems unable to shake its juvenile rhetoric, its thirst for “lulz,” and its reputation for drama. These traits were certainly on display in the last few weeks when an Anon known as “Ryan” took over the main AnonOps IRC servers and posted chat logs and IP addresses of users—temporarily depriving Anonymous of its main gathering point. Ryan said his actions were taken to overthrow the dictators off in invite-only chat rooms, making plans and acting like the group’s leaders. Was this true? And does the truth even matter?
For Brown, Anonymous has become a distraction to the work he really wants to accomplish. “To the extent one works out of AnonOps or some other venue of that sort, one has to deal with those people, as well as with a lot of frankly disturbed hacker types like Ryan—who continues to fuck with my projects,” he said. So Brown and some like-minded associates will do some of the same work, but under a different banner—Brown’s existing “Project PM.”
What is Project PM? According Brown’s description of the project, it’s “a pursuant—an autonomous online entity composed of individuals who have come together to conduct activism in pursuit of a particular end and who wish to do so by the most efficient means available.” The first big project is OpMetalGear, which has set up a wiki to collate information on defense and intelligence contracting, especially as it related to the “persona management” software sought by the US government and discussed in some of the HBGary Federal e-mails.
To some, Brown looks like a spotlight-hogging “namefag”; a Radio Free Europe blogger recently suggested that Brown could be the next Julian Assange. “There are clear parallels with Assange,” wrote Luke Allnutt on May 18. “A broken home, interrupted education, a fierce independent streak, a conspiratorial mind, and a clear desire to be in the limelight. They both like to see themselves (in Assange’s case, with some justification) as plucky digital outlaws taking on the Internet’s evil corporate and state overlords.”
Critics of Anonymous routinely single out Brown for criticism due to his public identity. “Barrett Brown, you are one dumb son of a bitch. Ballsy, but dumb,” said one critic on Twitter, who complained that Brown was little more than an apologist for a gang of crooks. Conservative blogger Robert Stacy McCain wants to know if the FBI is watching Brown, “and if they’re not already, shouldn’t they?”
Others suggest that Anons don’t like him much, or perhaps worry about what he knows. Earlier this week, security firm Kaspersky Labs noted Brown’s departure, saying, “Anonymous observers, who asked to remain anonymous themselves, said there’s reason to believe that Brown is being cut off by core Anonymous members worried about having their identities exposed, or wary of Brown’s focus on government wrongdoing.”
As for Brown, he plans to keep working “with people who are themselves still very much associated with Anonymous and AnonOps in particular,” but he won’t be operating under the “Anonymous” banner any longer.
Funding this kind of work can be a challenge. When he announced Project PM last year, Brown asked readers for donations.
“You’ll also get a lot of bang for your buck in terms of the marginal utility of your patronage, as I am extraordinarily frugal, even Spartan insomuch as that I spend a lot of time sitting around without a shirt on, or pants, or more than one sock,” he wrote. “I smoke Top rolling tobacco, which goes for around $3 a package and is sold in many prison commissaries. I eat oatmeal for breakfast rather than endangered condor eggs dipped in wasabi-infused veal compote like Christopher Hitchens does. Anyway, the tobacco is necessary for my work.”
Thanks to his heightened profile, Brown did secure a writing gig with The Guardian newspaper in the UK, which brings in a bit of cash. He also writes for magazines like our sister publication Vanity Fair here in the US. (Update: Brown clarifies that both the Guardian and Vanity Fair gigs began before he got involved with Anonymous.)
He’s now working on pieces for Al-Jazeera that discuss what he has learned from OpMetalGear. Brown also has hopes for a film script. “It’s a sort of dark political comedy about a guy who secretly ends up as a speechwriter for both candidates in the same campaign,” he said.
Photo illustration remixed from an original photo by byronv2, Barrett Brown photo capped from an NBC interview.
- Is Anonymous Less Anonymous Now? (technologyreview.com)