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Anonymous has declared cyber war on Russia — but who are they?

International “hacktivist” group Anonymous has embarked on its biggest operation yet: declaring cyberwar on the Russian government.

Following the devastating Russian invasion of Ukraine, the group hacked Russian news channels Russia 24, Channel One, and Moscow 24 to show footage of harrowing scenes from the assault, as well as broadcasting the message: “Ordinary Russians are against the war”.

The move is thought to be in response to the Russian government’s crackdown on information about the Ukraine invasion being shared. Anonymous wrote on Twitter of the “need to keep the Russian people connected to the global community.”

On Friday, a new “fake news” law was approved by the lower chamber of Russia’s parliament which meant people found guilty of disseminating what Russian officials declare as false information about the Ukraine conflict would get prison time of up to 15 years or a fine of 1.5m rubles (£10,700).

Anonymous has also taken responsibility for several other cyber attacks, including shutting down the Kremlin’s official website, hacking the Ministry of Defence database and taking down 300+ Russian media and bank websites.

Little is known about the members of the elusive collection and with a name like Anonymous, it’s clear they want to keep it that way. The group has no leadership and no face – only Guy Fawkes masks mirroring the film “V for Vendetta”. Its tagline is simply: “Knowledge is free. We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive, we do not forget. Expect us.” Still, it hasn’t stopped the cyber attacker becoming a global superpower in its own right.

Anonymous originated in 2003 on the image-based bulletin board 4chan, a shadowy corner of the internet largely known for its anonymous, anything-goes forums. United by a shared philosophy of dissent against internet censorship and control, it was originally viewed as a prankster group that harassed peadophiles and protested against the Church of Scientology.

Gabriella Coleman writes of the group in her 2014 book Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous: “In some ways, it may be impossible to gauge the intent and motive of thousands of participants, many of who don’t even bother to leave a trace of their thoughts, motivations and reactions.” However, generally they take aim at those they accuse of misusing power, and do so in very public ways, such as hijacking websites or forcing them offline.

The first major Anonymous cyber attack to make headlines was against the Church of Scientology in 2008, in which it used Distributed Denial of Service attacks (DDoS) — a form of hacking that attempts to make an online service unavailable by overwhelming it with traffic from multiple sources — to derail the cult -like religious movement’s website.

In the years that followed, the group took a decisively more political turn. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis in 2008, the group acted in support of the Arab Spring protest movements, targeted Sony Entertainment over its attempt to crack down on hacking of the PlayStation 3 console, supported the Occupy Wall Street protests, and most recently showed solidarity with the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement by taking down the Minneapolis Police department website.

Its latest declaration of cyber war against Russia on Twitter therefore comes as no surprise. As they promise in their iconic tagline: “Expect us”.

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