Had Project PM developed along the lines of Brown's original vision – as a kind of exclusive, experts-only, friends-of-Barrett blogger network – it is extremely unlikely that Brown would now be in jail. Or that the FBI would have subpoenaed the company hired to secure its server, as it did in March. But Project PM ended up taking a different route.
The event that locked Brown's path into a collision course with the federal government came on February 11th, 2010, when he posted an essay on Huffington Post that he grandiloquently titled "Anonymous, Australia and the Inevitable Fall of the NationState."
At the time, Anonymous was in the news after some of its hackers, in an action they called Operation Titstorm, brought down Australian government servers in retaliation for the government's attempt to block certain kinds of niche pornography. For Brown, Titstorm was a world-historic game-changer, a portent of an age in which citizens could successfully challenge state power on their laptops and neutralize government propaganda and censorship.
In the comically aggrandizing tone that had become his trademark, Brown concluded, "I am now certain that this phenomenon is among the most important and underreported social developments to have occurred in decades."
Among those taken by Brown's interpretation of Titstorm was Gregg Housh, a Boston Web designer and early Anonymous associate, who had emerged as a sort of quasi-spokesman for the group. Through Housh, Brown gained entrance to the online inner sanctums of the hackers he thought were turning history on its head. Housh, who was starting to feel burned out from fielding the barrage of international media requests, saw Brown as someone who could step in and talk to reporters for Anonymous.
"Barrett 'got it' in a way few journalists did," says Housh. "Soon, he was one of us, and that pretty much set the course for everything that happened next."
Brown always denied holding any official capacity as the spokesman of Anonymous, maintaining such a thing was not even possible given the amorphous nature of the group. Yet he embraced the media role with relish, sometimes using the royal "we" during interviews. In March 2011, Brown described himself to a visiting NBC News crew as a "senior strategist" for Anonymous. He also, along with Housh, began writing a book about the group, detailing the transformation of Anonymous from a community of amoral videogame-playing punks into an ethical crusade, assisting street protests across the globe during the Arab Spring.
From the beginning, Brown's public role was a subject of internal controversy. A minority dismissed and attacked him as a preening "name fag" – Anonymous slang for people who use their real names and speak to the press. Others were more bothered that Brown was a "moral fag," the term used by unrepentant griefers to describe the new generation of hacktivists who began flocking to the Anonymous banner in 2008. In We Are Legion, Brown makes his allegiance clear, hailing the hacktivists for turning a "nihilist, ridiculous group" into a "force for good."
Yet something of the old griefer remained in Brown even after his and the group's politicization process had converged to take on the world of intelligence outsourcing. "He was just trolling the hell out of these corporate-surveillance guys," says Joe Fionda, a New York activist who assisted Brown in his investigations. "Not just doing the serious research work no one else was doing – getting tax files and all that – but calling them at their homes to introduce himself, sometimes straight up pranking them. He's legit funny and sees the humor and the absurd in everything."
Another former colleague, a Boston Web developer and activist named Lauren Pespisa, shared Brown's love of prank calls: "Sometimes we'd drink and prank-call lobbyists for fun. We went after this one group, Qorvis, because they were helping the kingdom of Bahrain handle its image when they were shooting people. So we'd call them up and 'dragon shout' at them," she says, referring to a sound effect in one of Brown's favorite video games, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
By combining the two ethos of Anonymous, Brown won over more people than he alienated. Part of his appeal was the act of his drily affected pseudo-aristocratic-asshole persona, which he exaggerated during media appearances. He preferred a corduroy sports jacket to the Guy Fawkes mask that Anonymous members favor. A typical portrait showed Brown's arm slung over a chair, a Marlboro dangling off his bottom lip and a stuffed bobcat on the wall behind him. He was oth loved and hated for being one of the more colorful characters found in the Internet Relay Chat rooms where hackers gathered. He famously once conducted a strategy session while drinking red wine in a bubble bath.
"Barrett became a bit like the court jester of Anonymous," says Gabriella Coleman, a professor at McGill University who has written about the network. "His behavior was legendary because he was the ethical foil. Anonymous isn't just for hackers. People like Barrett Brown can thrive: the organizer, the media-maker, the spectacle-maker."
When Brown met Housh, he was nearing the end of his three-year stint in Brooklyn. In the spring of 2010, Brown called his parents and told them he had a heroin problem. At their urging, he returned to Dallas and began an outpatient treatment that included the heroin replacement Suboxone. It was from a tiny Dallas apartment that Brown deepened his involvement with Anonymous. Since most of his friends lived in Austin, his new social life consisted of the IRC rooms populated by hacktivists. It was a world of nonstop, petty cyberintrigue, which to outsiders can appear like a hellish fusion of The Hollywood Squares, WarGames and Degrassi Junior High.
Pritchard remembers the first time Brown crashed on his couch in Austin after his return to Dallas. "I'd wake up, and he'd be online having conversations with these kids on Skype or something," he says. "Barrett would say, 'I know what you're doing!' The other guy would be stroking his chin like he's Dr. Claw, saying, 'No, I know what you're doing.' It was nonstop cyberwar, with these dorks just dorking it out with each other. It seemed like a bunch of kids trolling each other."
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