Still, Pritchard appreciated that beneath the dorkery, Brown was involved in serious business. This was Brown's first year as an unofficial spokesman for Anonymous, and it was eventful. The hackers were aiding the uprisings of the Arab Spring, and assaulted PayPal and credit-card companies in retaliation for their refusal to process donations to WikiLeaks. This latter action, called Operation PayBack, earned the attention of the Justice Department. In the summer of 2011, the FBI issued 35 search warrants and arrested 14 suspected hackers.
By the time of the arrests, Brown's focus had settled squarely on the nexus between government agencies, private intelligence firms and the information-security industry – known as InfoSec – contracted to build programs and technologies of surveillance, disruption and control that Brown suspected were in many cases unconstitutional. What's more, he was as bratty as ever about it. He phoned CEOs and flacks at their homes and called them liars. He boasted about bringing the whole system down. As the first raids and arrests took place following Operation PayBack, some observers of Brown's antics began to suspect that the court jester of Anonymous was not a very safe thing to be.
"You could just tell it was going to end badly," says an Anonymous member and veteran hacker. "When he really started making noise about going after these intel-contracting companies, I was like, 'You're going to get locked up, kid.'"
After Operation Payback, Anonymous was on the radar of every private security firm looking to build a quick reputation. In the office of Aaron Barr, CEO of a struggling digital-security contractor called HBGary Federal, it was the biggest thing on the radar. Barr was convinced that taking down Anonymous before it struck again was a fast track to industry juice and massive contracts. In February 2011, he bragged to The Financial Times about the supersecret sleuthing techniques he had developed to get the goods on Anonymous. He claimed to know the identities of the group's leaders. Implicit in Barr's comments was the possibility of federal raids on those identified.
Partly to avoid that outcome, and partly out of curiosity, an Anonymous cell hacked HBGary's servers. They discovered that Barr's techniques involved hanging out on major social-media sites and compiling lists of mostly innocent people. It wasn't the only example of his staggering miscalculation: Within minutes, the hackers easily got around the firm's security defenses, ransacking company servers, wiping Barr's personal tablet and absconding with 70,000 internal e-mails. Stephen Colbert devoted a segment to the fiasco, based around the image of Barr sticking his penis in a hornets' nest.
Once the hackers who broke into HBGary's servers discovered that Barr was basically a clown, they abandoned pursuit. "There were tens of thousands of e-mails and no one wanted to go through them," says an Anonymous associate who observed the HBGary hack. "Everyone was like, 'We're not even going to dump these, because there's no point.'"
Brown disagreed. When the hackers posted the e-mails on a BitTorrent site, he used Project PM to organize the painstaking work of collating and connecting the dots to see what picture emerged.
"Nobody was reading more than a couple of the e-mails before getting bored," says the Anonymous associate. "But Barrett has this strangely addictive and journalistic kind of mind, so he could stare at those e-mails for 10 hours. He'd be sitting alone in the HBGary channel, yelling at everyone, 'You've got to pay attention! Look at the crap I found!'" Brown quickly drew in some 100 volunteers to help him trawl through and make sense of the e-mails.
The HBGary cache offered one of the fullest looks ever at how corporate-state partnerships were targeting groups they considered subversive or inimical to the interests of corporate America. The projects under consideration at HBGary ranged from cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns targeting civic groups and journalists to Weird Science-supermodel avatars built to infiltrate and disrupt left-wing and anarchist networks.
Project PM volunteer investigator Joe Fionda remembers the disturbing thrill of uncovering HBGary's use of a Maxim pinup to create online personas designed to spy for corporate and government clients. "I couldn't believe how much crazy shit they were up to," Fionda says. "My brain still feels like it's going to explode."
The biggest fish flopping in Brown's net was the story of a cluster of contractors known as Team Themis. The origins of Team Themis dated to Bank of America's alarm over Julian Assange's 2010 claim to possess documents that "could take down a bank or two." The Department of Justice recommended Bank of America retain the services of the white-shoe D.C. law firm Hunton & Williams and the high-powered intelligence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. On behalf of Bank of America, Hunton & Williams turned to the large and growing world of InfoSec subcontractors to come up with a plan, settling on HBGary and two dataintelligence shops, Berico Technologies and Palantir Technologies.
The Themis three were also preparing a proposal for Hunton & Williams on behalf of another client, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The leaked HBGary documents revealed that Themis was exploring ways of discrediting and disrupting the activities of organized labor and its allies for the Chamber. The potential money at stake in these contracts was considerable. According to Wired, the trio proposed that the Chamber create a $2-milliona-month sort of cyber special-forces team "of the kind developed and utilized by the Joint Special Operations Command." They also suggested targeting a range of left-of-center organizations, including the SEIU, watchdog groups like U.S. Chamber Watch, and the Center for American Progress. (The Chamber of Commerce and Bank of America have denied ever hiring Team Themis or having any knowledge of the proposals.)
In pursuit of the Chamber and Bank of America contracts, the Themis three devised multipronged campaigns amounting to a private-sector information-age COINTELPRO, the FBI's program to infiltrate and undermine "subversive" groups between 1956 and 1971. Among the The mis ideas presented to Hunton & Williams: "Feed the fuel between the feuding groups. Disinformation. Create messages around actions to sabotage or discredit the opposing organization. Submit fake documents and then call out the error."
The revelations represented a triumph for Brown and his wiki. A group of Democratic congressmen asked four Republican committee chairs to hold hearings on the "deeply troubling" question of whether "tactics developed for use against terrorists may have been unleashed illegally against American citizens." But the calls for investigation went nowhere. The lack of outrage in Washington or on influential editorial pages didn't shock Brown, who had long ago lost hope in the politicians and pundits who are "clearly intent on killing off even this belated scrutiny into the invisible empire that so thoroughly scrutinizes us – at our own expense and to unknown ends."
It was Brown's finest moment, but his relationship with Anonymous was rapidly deteriorating. By May 2011, Brown had begun turning on the network. "There's little quality control in a movement like [Anonymous]," Brown told an interviewer. "You attract a lot of people whose interest is in fucking with video-game companies."
Brown's haughty dismissal of the new crop of hacktivists was not a feeling shared by the FBI. The government continued to see Anonymous as a major and growing threat. And in the summer of 2011, it acquired a key piece in its operation to destroy the network. On the night of June 7th, four months after the HBGary hack, two federal agents visited the Jacob Riis publichousing project on Manhattan's Lower East Side and introduced themselves to a 27-year-old unemployed hacker named Hector Monsegur, known inside Anonymous as "Sabu." As a leader of an Anonymous offshoot called Lulzsec, he had hacked a number of state and corporate servers. In early 2011, he made some rookie errors that led the FBI to his door: Facing the prospect of being indicted on 12 counts of criminal conspiracy, Sabu rolled over on his old hacker associates. He signed a cooperation agreement and began feeding the FBI information on Anonymous plots. The biggest of these involved a private global intelligence contractor located in Barrett Brown's backyard, the Austin-based Stratfor.
In early December 2011, a young Chicago Anon named Jeremy Hammond cracked Stratfor's server and downloaded some 5 million internal documents. With the apparent blessing and supervision of the FBI, Sabu provided the server for Hammond to store the docs. Hammond then proceeded to release them to the public. Sifting through the data dump would require a massive coordinated effort of exactly the kind Project PM had been training for. Brown and his dedicated volunteers attacked the mountains of e-mails. "We had between 30 and 50 people involved, usually 15 at a time," says Lauren Pespisa, the Boston Project PM volunteer who now helps organize Brown's legaldefense fund.
After six months of work, Brown would discover what he considered the fattest spider amid the miles of Stratfor web: a San Diego-based cybersecurity firm called Cubic. As Brown followed the strings, he discovered links between Cubic and a data-mining contractor known as TrapWire, which had ties to CIA vets. Brown thought that he had stumbled on a major find illuminating new technologies for spying and surveillance, but the media pickup was not what Brown had hoped. Major dailies shrugged off the story, and Gawker and Slate poured cold water on his alarm, calling it "outlandish." Brown responded to the criticism with a rambling, connect-the-conspiracy-dots YouTube video.
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