The hacking group known as Anonymous has been dominating the headlines in recent years, but who or what exactly is it?
That is something that a pair of Melbourne based filmmakers are attempting to answers with their upcoming documentary, Future Radicals, by interviewing some of those involved with the group.
Writer and director, Ben Eriksen, traces the genesis of the documentary to his fascination with hackers since the late 80’s.
“I was really into computers from the age of about nine, long before every house had one,” he said.
“In fact, I remember copping a lot of flack from the other kids at school for being a ‘computer nerd.’”
Eriksen also admits to avidly watching seminal hacking movies like 1983’s WarGames at the time.
“The idea that someone could change their school grades, or even accidentally trigger a nuclear war, all with a computer and a phone line was pretty compelling to me,” he said.
Writer, director and producer, Kate Pappas, admits to always being interested in political and social movements, so examining the way in which technology is changing the way people live, interact and protest was an extension of that.
“Documentary is there to shine a light on different pockets of society, and these guys are a particularly relevant one,” she said.
There was also the opportunity to debunk the myths mainstream and tabloid media have created around Anonymous.
“Descriptions of the hacking group range from mildly exaggerated to just plain ludicrous,” Pappas said.
While Anonymous has recently been in the spotlight for their various high profile attacks, there have actually been several high profile hacking groups in recent years, leading one to ask why Future Radicals became the focus of the documentary.
Eriksen says that his interest in Anonymous happened by chance during a time he was fascinated with the alternate religion scientology.
“I had seen all these videos with these amazing claims of abuse, and I couldn’t believe that this kind of thing was still happening in western societies,” he said.
It was one of these nights watching YouTube that Eriksen stumbled across Anonymous’ video message to scientology.
“Admittedly, I was sleep deprived but it still shocked me,” he said.
“It was so aggressive in its tone, and yet hauntingly hypnotic.”
Yet, when Eriksen watched the video again the next day, his earlier shock turned to amusement.
“I think that is what was so exciting about every Anonymous action,” he said.
“It was so aggressive in tone, yet there was a little sense of humour in everything they did.”
As Eriksen did more research into Anonymous, he found that they are “small fry” when it comes to hacking groups, and admits, in hacking terms, there are “more interesting hackers and more dangerous hacks” taking place in the world.
Instead, what interested Eriksen about Anonymous was not so much the technical, but the mood they represented at the time.
“In 2011, Time Magazine named the person of the year as the protester,” he said.
“Just average people trying to make a difference to their world and for me, anonymous personifies this.”
Eriksen saw this as the first instance of “crowd sourced” activism, and was impressed with what it has achieved so far.
“Here we have a group of people of incredibly wide ranging age group, skills, and even political allegiance all using the same moniker,” he said.
“With no real hierarchy, they managed to organise an entire army of volunteers, which gained mass media attention to their various causes.”
Eriksen highlights that some of the people in Anonymous even helped change the course of the revolutions during the Arab Spring last year.
“All of this was done without people even so much as knowing each other’s name,” he said.
Like Eriksen, Pappas shared an interest in the humour prevalent in Anonymous’ methodology.
“I also find the idea of the ‘hive mind,’ or collective individual as structure, really interesting,” she said.
“I am genuinely curious to see how sustainable it is in the long run.”
Another aspect of Anonymous that drew Eriksen to them was the group’s origins on the 4chan imageboard.
“The forum is frankly a horrible place to hang out for those who don’t understand it, yet it took one person with an idea to spawn an entire subculture that had big business, governments, law enforcement, and the media in a frenzy,” he said.
The advent of Anonymous also meant it was the first time where someone did not have to be a hacker to be part of a hacker group.
“I think that was the most attractive thing for most of them,” Eriksen said.
“There were probably only a handful of truly skilled hackers in the group.”
The core of Future Radicals are the interviews with the individuals from Anonymous, and Eriksen says his interview with de facto Anonymous spokesman, Barrett Brown, was the most memorable experience.
“He was in Dallas and I was in Melbourne, so we conducted the interview via Skype while he had a portable phone in his lap,” he said.
Despite the distance, Eriksen says the conversation was “as intense as if [Brown] was staring down across the table.”
“He is frighteningly intelligent, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I was speaking to someone that one day my grandchildren will be learning about in history class,” he said.
Pappas also highlights a three hour Skype interview with the operator of Anonyops, whom she found to be “a great orator and highly intelligent.”
In regards to the actual creation of the documentary, Pappas said she enjoyed seeing all of the design elements, such as the illustrations and music, come together.
“All of a sudden, the interviews I had been watching against an offensively bright green screen had a new feel and life to them,” she said. After having worked on the documentary, the question is how interacting with the hackers behind Anonymous may have affected the filmmakers’ outlook on hacking and these types of groups in general.
Eriksen says the experience has made him more wary of how he uses the Internet and he no longer recycles his passwords.
“I think it’s frightening just how blurred the lines between good and bad are in the hacking world,” he said.
“That said, it fills my heart with joy to know that even hackers with small amounts of skill can still humiliate governments, law enforcement, and big business.”
While Pappas has seen the experience make her a bit more sceptical of the hackers’ claims, she admits to being captivated and motivated by the energy their activities have given to social protest and political movements.
“The Internet is a great vehicle for disseminating information that people wouldn’t otherwise have access to,” she said.
“As [hacker] Subverzo says, ‘Cops couldn’t misbehave if they have eyes looking at them,’ and I think that applies to a lot more than just law enforcement.”
Future Radicals will be broadcast on November 18 at 9.30pm on ABC2 as part of the Opening Shot series.