Faces, some masked, of Anonymous

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'We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists'

'We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists' (December 6, 2012)

Two years ago in December, Visa, MasterCard and PayPal cut off all financial services to WikiLeaks. This left the controversial website blocked off from accepting online donations — a state of affairs that did not sit well with members of the sprawling Internet activist group known as Anonymous, which let its collective displeasure be known when it launched brief (but attention-getting) disruptions affecting each company's website. They called it Operation Payback.

It was only a matter of time before protests spilled into the digital realm. The FBI, it is worth noting, sees things a bit differently.

Among those indicted in the case was 19-year-old Mercedes Haefer, who is one of the first people to show her face in "We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists," the documentary (which screens Friday courtesy of Chicago Filmmakers) that traces the origins of Anonymous and peels back the layers of this amorphous, ever-changing group that has adopted the Guy Fawkes mask as its public identity and unofficial logo.

For obvious reasons, Haefer doesn't have to obscure her identity these days. "They seem pretty shocked by the angry belligerent teenager they dragged out of bed that day," she says to the camera, referring to the law enforcement raid on the day of her arrest. "I don't know if it was just that I was 19 or a girl, but they didn't expect this."

Haefer's case has yet to go to trial, but if convicted of the felony charges against her (including conspiracy and intentional damage to a protected computer) the penalties could be stiff, up to 15 years in prison and a half-million-dollar fine. A verdict in her favor could have far-ranging implications as well; cyber sit-ins could be classified as a new form of civil disobedience.

It wouldn't be unprecedented. When hackers took down the website of Lufthansa in protest of the airline's involvement in the deportation of refugees, German courts ruled in 2006 that the action was a legitimate form of protest. A case closer to home (though not detailed in the film) concerns Chicagoan Jeremy Hammond, a self-proclaimed "electronic Robin Hood" who stands accused of hacking the servers of Strategic Forecasting (known as Stratfor), a private intelligence contractor sometimes referred to as the shadow CIA. Hammond has been held without bail since his arrest in March; his trial is set to begin next year.

Beckie Stocchetti, who programs the lineup at Chicago Filmmakers, tells me local experts will be on hand for a Q&A panel after the screening, along with filmmaker Brian Knappenberger, who will be Skyping in from Los Angeles.

"A lot of my work has been about technology and its affect on our lives and culture," he said when we spoke earlier this week. A veteran of PBS's "Frontline," the National Geographic Channel and Discovery, he first took notice of Anonymous when the group hacked the Church of Scientology in 2008.

"But when they attacked MasterCard, Visa and PayPal because of WikiLeaks, that was a much bigger action," he said. "You could tell something new was happening and they were building up a head of steam, and I wanted to follow along and see what happened." There is no telling exactly how many people affiliate with Anonymous, but the Twitter numbers are staggering. @YourAnonNews has more than 700,000 followers; several other Anonymous-run Twitter accounts have followers in the 200,000 range. That adds up to a lot of casual participants who can be harnessed when the collective ire is stoked.

About half of the people interviewed in Knappenberger's film disguise their appearance behind a Guy Fawkes mask. But it is surprising to see just as many make no attempt to hide their identities, including Mike Vitale, whose black T-shirt, gold chain and good-natured trash talk bring to mind a macho swagger that flies in the face of hacker stereotypes.

"Anonymous was kind of like the big, strong buff kid who had low self-esteem and then all of a sudden punched somebody in the face and was like, 'Holy sh--, I'm really strong,'" he says in the film. "If you are going to violate the freedoms of the Internet, you certainly better watch the f--- out."

That's been the ethos of people such as Peter Fein, who have been actively involved in trying to keep the Internet running in the Middle East; Fein was instrumental in helping Egyptians subvert the government's Internet shutdown in 2011 amid the upheaval.

"Anonymous is like a loudspeaker," Knappenberger said of the group, which expands and contracts depending on what is being protested. "They're saying 'We don't agree with a certain activity' — what's going on in Syria or in Gaza, for example. But how much damage in the big scheme of things is Anonymous doing? They have a flair for the theatrical and the politics of spectacle. And that's what they're good at — they're really good at that."

Of course Anonymous has violated the very freedoms it champions. The noxious New Jersey radio host Hal Turner, who is an almost cartoonishly offensive white supremacist, was hacked and trolled by members of Anonymous, an action that forced him out of business by ensuring that he accrued thousands of dollars in bandwidth bills. (Turner has a Chicago connection as well; last year he was convicted — after two mistrials — of threatening to kill three Chicago appellate court judges for their 2009 ruling upholding handgun bans in Chicago and Oak Park.)

It's easy to get behind Anonymous when they go after guys such as Turner — until you stop to consider that, as Knappenberger put it, "Turner has a right to spew whatever nonsense he wants. That's what Anonymous fights for: making sure speech isn't repressed. So there's a huge contradiction there, trying to silence people you don't like, coming from a freedom of speech group.

"But one of the things I like about Anonymous," he said, "is that this irony is not lost on them. They are deeply immersed in that discussion. A good saying about Anonymous is that 'Anonymous is not unanimous.' There's this huge argument going on about what are appropriate targets and why? That's a really interesting discussion to be having right now."

"We Are Legion" (presented by Chicago Filmmakers) screens 7:30 p.m. Friday at Columbia College, followed by a post-show discussion with director Brian Knappenberger via Skype. Go to chicagofilmmakers.org.

Holiday film roundup, part I

The Community Bank of Oak Park River Forest hosts a screening of "Miracle on 34th Street" at 10 a.m. Saturday and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" at 10 a.m. Dec. 15. at the Lake Theatre in Oak Park. Admission is free. Go to cboprf.com.

Holiday film roundup, part II

In Downers Grove, the Tivoli Theatre's annual Holiday Classic Film Festival begins this week with Katharine Hepburn in "Holiday" (Sunday); Debbie Reynolds in "Susan Slept Here" (Monday); Bill Murray in "Scrooged" (Tuesday); Bing Crosby in "White Christmas" (Wednesday); and Chevy Chase in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" (Thursday). A midnight screening of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" takes place Dec. 29. Go to classiccinemas.com.

Holiday film roundup, part III

Nothing beats a Christmas movie screened in an old-school movie palace like Chicago's Patio Theater, built in 1927. This weekend it's "A Christmas Story"; "White Christmas" plays the following weekend and "It's a Wonderful Life" on Dec. 22. Go to patiotheater.net.

nmetz@tribune.com

Twitter @NinaMetzNews

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