In December 2010 the heat-seeking Internet pranksters known as Anonymous attacked PayPal, the online bill-paying business. PayPal had been a conduit for donations to WikiLeaks, the rogue whistle-blower site, until WikiLeaks released a huge cache of State Department internal messages. PayPal cut off donations to the WikiLeaks website. Then PayPal’s own site was shut down, as Anonymous did what it did best: exaggerate the weight of its own influence.
But, according to We Are Anonymous, by Parmy Olson, the London bureau chief for Forbes magazine, it had taken a single hacker and his botnet to close PayPal. “He then signed off and went to have his breakfast,” she writes.
Even so, Anonymous made it seem like the work of its shadowy horde. “We lied a bit to the press to give it that sense of abundance,” says the figure named Topiary, one of the best sources in We Are Anonymous, a lively, startling book that reads as “The Social Network” for group hackers.
As in that Facebook film, the technological innovations created by a few people snowball wildly beyond expectation until they have mass effect. But the human element — the mix of glee, malevolence, randomness, megalomania and just plain mischief that helped spawn these changes — is what Olson explores best.
“Here was a network of people borne out of a culture of messing with others,” she writes, “a paranoid world whose inhabitants never asked each other personal questions and habitually lied about their real lives to protect themselves.”