We are anonymous : book review

We are anonymous by Parmy Olson.


A good book to read after Hacker Hoaxer Whistleblower Spy, by Gabriella Coleman, or if you really enjoyed the We are legion documentary. Poorly written. Good coverage of Lulzsec.

The book is mainly about the 6 core members of LulzSec, and is the narrative is driven by the story of Jake Davis – aka Topiary, who became the mouthpiece of Lulzsec.

If you want to know what Anonymous is, or how it began, then this book should suffice as a good starting point. Beginning with 4chan and chanology and extending to the Stratfor hack and the demise of Lulzsec you get a decent overview of the main characters and events.

If you had to choose between this and Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy by Gabriella Coleman I would choose HHWS. But here are some comparisons between the two.

  • HHWS is a more academic look at Anonymous. GC is an anthropologist and the book sometimes has a thesis feel to it which makes the pages heavier to turn.
  • However, HHWS is a much smoother read. WAA is poorly written, the editor did Olson no favors.
  • There is value in reading both as they do cover different events and different perspectives of the events that overlap between them.
  • GC’s book has a much more insider feel to it, she manages to take you into the IRC chats more effectively and in general captures the atmosphere of the madness more effectively.
  • To sum it up, HHWS is more insightful, covering the zeitgeist of the period it covers by delving into the Occupy Movement and the apathy pre-snowden. WAA focuses a lot more on the young men involved with Lulzsec and the traitor that sold them out.

But back to what I though of WAA. At one point about 2/3’s in I put it down for quite a while, with the intention of not returning to it. Slightly disgusted and put off. I eventually did finish it but only thanks to downloading the audiobook version. Which made the poor writing easier to get past, but if you decide to go the audiobook route, be prepared for a narrator who’s accents make you cringe.

The reason I had become so unenthralled with the book was how it had descended into a sad stupor of nefarious teenage revelry. At this 2/3 point in the book I was realising that very few of the people the book centres on had any hacking skills, and that the heart of the anonymous in the period covered by the book thus far was mainly teenage apathy and a myriad of dark activities. And although Olson presents the dicotomy existent in anonymous throughout the book – those in it for the Lulz and those in it for activism – those with true hacking skills and those with little to none – at this 2/3 point the book had  centred on the immature motives of the young Lulzsec members and the depravity existent in the culture that the redeeming features of anonymous that I think draw most readers seemed, perhaps rightfully so, peripheral.

For me, this book left me wondering what anonymous and Lulzsec had accomplished. What had they gained in exchange for imprisonment ? Very little. The book suggests they exposed security weaknesses to the public. And this is true , but it does not seem to carry much weight.

You get to know the teenager Jake Davis quite well throughout the book. As well as Hector Monsegur who represents the more revolutionary aspect of anonymous, a hacker passionate about the antisec movement who ultimately flips. There is a large part of the book about another young man, William, who is of a similar mould to Jake Davis. Getting to know these characters ultimately acquaints the reader with the vile and immature side of anonymous, centered on trolling, low-tech facebook hacks, and filthy behaviour. There is less about genuine hacking ,and a lot of garbage about how these young men would “hack” facebook accounts, ultimately getting other young men to send them dick pics, which they would use as blackmail, forcing their victims to perform humiliating acts such as waking up there mother in the dead of night to show her the previously mentioned picture, all the while in tears, to appease these “hackers”.

The book did reveal something to me that I either missed in HHWS or that was not explained regarding DDOS attacks. From WAA you realised that in fact very little of the firepower that brought down the various .mil and .gov websites came from the hive that anonymous attracted. The real firepower came from botnets, mainly from one individual by the name of Ryan. Another kid who was later apprehended, and is now free, despite being involved in child pornography. It was at this point that I was so repulsed by the lost young men who could not have been more different to someone like Aaron Schwartz that I was doubtful the book held much more for me.

I persisted  to Topiary’s last tweet before being apprehended at the end of the book . “you cannot arrest an idea”. But after reading this book, I can only come to the conclusion that these young men stood for no idea in particular and all there activity was ultimately an expression of a deep teenage angst though a wonderful show to watch.

The coverage of genuine political hacker Jeremey Hammond and Wikileaks founder Assange, is pretty brief, and there are no good insights on anything Snowden, TOR, silkroad, NSA, information freedom, Aaron Schwartz, Occupy, or any of the other overlapping themes that meld into anonymous.

The book ultimately did a great job at de-romanticising anonymous for me, though this was not what I think the author intended. The book balances nicely against HHWS as the two popular books that cover anonymous. The books is quite dated now, so take that into consideration after reading this and if you decide to read WAA.







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