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Thursday, 23 August 2012

We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists

Is it cyber terrorism, vandalism or legitimate political protest when a loosely organised bunch of computer geeks brings down an official website in order to make a point? What about when they hack into a person’s emails and steal his files, thus outing him as a neo-Nazi and an FBI informant? Is that theft or a public service? These are questions many of us asked a few years ago, when vague news reports started to filter through about the activities of the ‘shadowy’ and decentralised hacker collective known as ‘Anonymous’.
Brian Knappenberger’s We Are Legion is a fascinating glimpse behind the handsome, leering Guy Fawkes mask that has become the movement’s logo. Who are these people? What do they want, and how do they think? Are they cowardly bullies working from their bedrooms or courageous activists who are the last bastion of freedom of speech in an age of almost total Internet surveillance? 
Playful, annoying, disorganised and highly disruptive, hacktivist activities included attacks on the church of Scientology for its suppression of an embarrassing Tom Cruise video; the attempted ‘Operation Titstorm’ in 2009 to protest the Australian Government’s proposed filtering of the Internet; and attacks on PayPal, Mastercard and Visa disrupting service for days on end when services disallowed donations to WikiLeaks.
Knappenberger has collected a range of interview subjects who are prepared to go on camera to talk about their involvement. Sometimes these people are disguised by voice distorters and those disturbing Guy Fawkes masks, giving the notion of the ‘talking head’ a whole new dimension. In other instances, interviewees are out in the open, like the fresh-faced 20-year-old Mercedes Haefer, who was rounded up by the FBI in an early morning raid on the so-called ‘Anonymous 16’ in 2011. She’s in serious trouble but adamant she’d do it all again.
It’s clear that Anonymous encompasses a broad spectrum of participants – from the adolescent jokesters who think it’s funny to infiltrate a teen sim world and form swastika patterns out of avatars, to the serious conscientious objectors who are prepared to go court to defend their actions.
Academics, commentators and the odd victim of the stunts are also brought in to share their perspectives and their research. Yet on the whole, the tone here is forgiving and celebratory. A hard-edged musical score and tight editing create a sense of excitement about the emergence of this new kind of civil disobedience, one that has spontaneously grown out of the likes of the rude and anarchic 4Chan website. (According to one subject, 4Chan is the spawner and originator of those silly and addictive Internet memes and ‘lulz’ we all love and enjoy today.) Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the documentary is the way it traces the stages of evolution of this subculture, with its offshoots, splinter groups, internal conflicts and growing popularisation.
It’s hard not to feel inspired by some of the hacktivists’ political actions – such as restoring Internet services and enabling Twitter reporting during Egypt’s uprising in 2011. The essential secrecy, and indeed the anonymity required to stay out of jail, means that these stories are by no means the final, comprehensive account of what’s really happened in the buccaneering world of hacking. But for those interested in politics and the potential for resistance in the Information Age, We Are Legion is essential viewing.
Note: This article first appeared as an extended program note for We Are Legion: The Story of the Hactivists on the website for the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rochelle Siemienowicz

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