On our last episode of Thank You For Not Sharing, I spoke with Ben de Vries, wrongfully accused by HBGary security wonk Aaron Barr of being the mysterious and elusive Commander X, alleged puppet-master behind the Anonymous collective.
It turns out Commander X is not that elusive, though he’s still somewhat mysterious. Because – unlike Aaron Barr -- I just enjoyed a long and fascinating chat with him.
[ See also: That new Facebook friend might just be a spy ]
Far from being a leader of the Anons, Commander X says he’s a “peon” in the organization, though he also says has the ear of the older members who are trying to keep the young’uns in check. But he is one of the co-founders of the People’s Liberation Front, a “cyber militia” formed in 1985 (“during a hella LSD party”) that’s working with AnonOps to disrupt communications in Iran and Bahrain, just as they did in Tunisia and Egypt.
I got to chat with the Commander as he was coordinating DDOS attacks on the Web sites for the Iranian government. There are many things he declined to divulge – like the PLF’s source of funding, and the true nature of Anonymous' relationship to WikiLeaks – but he was remarkably candid in other ways. Here’s an edited version of that conversation.
The popular impression is that Anonymous grew out of 4chan and is dominated by a younger participants -- late teens and early 20s. But it’s clear you're at least 40 years old. So is the popular impression wrong?
The popular impression is....skewed. There are older people, from the direction of the Chaos Computer Club - that can if needed rein in the "kids" who appear to dominate Anon Ops.
So is there some kind of informal hierarchy, despite the talk of the collective “hive mind”?
That is correct.
Are you afraid of having your actual identity revealed? Would that put you in legal jeopardy?
I don't care about the legal implications at all. I don't want my identity revealed for the same reason Batman doesn't want his mask ripped off in a fight. Commander X is a cartoon character that inspires thousands, revealing his identity would ruin the mystique which is so much a part of his power.
Do you wear a cape?
I have action figures. Want to see?
How many Anons are there?
I don’t know, maybe 10,000 worldwide.
But there is probably a core group that participates in discussions on IRC and makes the key decisions, yes? How many are in that?
Defining a "core" group in Anonymous is tricky. Where do you draw the big fuzzy line? But I would guess there are maybe two dozen decision makers in the co-op.
How does Anonymous pick its targets?
There are some rough criteria, they are basically the same for both the PLF and Anon Ops. They are as follows:
1) Must be protesters on the ground.
2) They must be non-violent. Neither the PLF nor Anon Ops involve themselves in armed conflicts.
3) There must be some hope of victory. With all the Targets to chose from, we must try and pick fights we can win.
4) There must be some clear moral imperative.
Can you define what you mean by "victory"?
Dictators on planes to Saudi Arabia works for us. :-)
But Egypt and Iran (and now Bahrain) are certainly not the only targets Anon has picked over the last few years. Scientology, for one. WikiLeaks (or rather, its enemies). Soulja boy???
Look... Scientology pre-dates the PLFs relationship with Anon Ops. I think there was a moral imperative, but I question how large a one. I think it was a hysterical fight against a truly deserving enemy that maybe didn't need to happen, but whatever. As for defense of WikiLeaks and Julian.... Let me say something for the record. If they harm one hair upon Julian Assange’s head, or if they destroy or damage WikiLeaks - the PLF WILL bring down the wrath of f***ing god on them.
Who's "they" in that sentence, and how will you harm them?
They is anyone who hurts Julian. What we will do to them is for them to lose sleep over.
Tell me more about the relationship between the PLF and Anonymous.
If you think of Anon Ops like NATO, the PLF would be the Belgian contingent. A group within a group. PLF is like a corporate member of Anon Ops, but only on those Ops that we "sign on" for. They have taken many of our techniques and made them uniquely their own. I am the PLF Field Commander and I personally handle the liaison with Anon Ops. [But] I am a peon in Anon Ops. I get tossed from Ops chans all the time.
Anon Ops and the PLF are both capable of creating huge "Internet armies". The main difference is Anon Ops moves with huge force, but very slowly because of their decision making process. The PLF moves with great speed, like a scalpel.
What do you hope to achieve by DDOSing Iranian government sites?
See... This is where you reporters got it all wrong. Look around you mister, you are in the PLF Ops Command Center. There is SO much more than DDOSing going on here. WAY more. Black Fax/ E-Mail Bombs White fax/Spam. Setting up and deploying VPNs for those in country. Distributing encryption/anonymity software. Getting media reports from the protesters and distributing them to media outlets. Creating flyers for them, etc. Basically anything we can think of as hackers and as activists to do.
And we must also monitor the situation, so that we can make these decisions with good intel.
But the DDOS is what gets all the attention. You could be doing all of this without using the Low Orbiting Ion Canon. So why DDOS?
You just answered your own question.
But it's largely negative attention, no?
Not if you’re a dictator. Taking down a Web site has multiple purposes.
2) Deny the tyrants a media outlet.
3) Deny the enemy their communications, vis a vis their contact forms and E-Mail addresses on the site.
4) Encourage the protesters on the ground.
So have you considered using more advanced hacking techniques?
Considered? How do you think Tunisia started? :-)
Are you saying you hacked the government of Tunisia?
That’s confidential. But I would point out that Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution" has been attributed to the leaking to WikiLeaks of some very embarrassing info on the Tunisian gov. Ever wonder where that leak came from ?
So you have more of a symbiotic relationship with WikiLeaks then?
I didn't say that. The PLF uses WikiLeaks to "leak" info on tyrants that we "find".
I'd like to switch to a few questions about HBGary, if that's alright. Have you ever had any contact with Aaron Barr or anyone else from HBGary?
Aaron Barr knows better than to contact me. Trust me, he is losing sleep waiting for what comes next. His life is basically destroyed now. And he deserves it. As for what else I could do to Mr. Barr, that is for me to delight in and him to lose sleep over.
Did you have any involvement in the hack that exposed all those emails?
Actually, no. I was contacted by Anon Ops the moment they had perused his "report" to let me know the PLF and myself figured prominently. The HBGary attack was done by Anonymous. As for who? Confidential.
One of the stories floating about after the hack is that HBGary had decompiled code for Stuxnet, and now that's in the hands of the Anons. Any truth to that?
Absolutely none. Anonymous does NOT create viruses or other malicious code. Ever. It's one of the guiding principles and it is never broken.
So if the PLF had access to Stuxnet, you wouldn't use it against an evil dictatorship?
We have different rules, that’s all I can say. We have a bit more flexibility in those areas with the choices we can make. But IF we did something like that it would be a completely Black Op and no one would ever know of it.
Have you ever been contacted by US law enforcement as a result of your activities with PLF or Anon?
Contacted? Yeah they send me Xmas cards. LOL.
I have been in FBI custody for my "unlawful activities," and I have had computers and other communications devices confiscated, or stolen as I see it.
So they know who you are?
I didn't say that. They have not made a connection between Commander X and any one of the 40 people they have f***ed with. They are trying though.
You’ve said "I don't want to be famous I want to be free. Not hunted like an animal or stalked like a criminal." Do you feel hunted and stalked?
F*** wouldn't you?
Yes. So why do it?
Because I live to protect the innocent and defenseless. Because it's the right thing to do and someone has to do it. Because it's fun kicking the ass of tyrants and human rights violators. Because it's who I am.