People call Anonymous a lot of bad words, but hypocritical is seldom one of them. The hacktivist collective's latest Germany-centric crusade against the bigotry and hatred of neo-Nazis is drawing ire from all sides. Codenamed Operation Blitzkrieg (or #OpBlitzkrieg) the project seems mostly focused on exposing the identities of neo-Nazis by posting customer databases on a WikiLeaks-style website called, not-so-creatively, Nazi-Leaks.net. Though Anonymous has been going after neo-Nazi groups for weeks, the operation took off this week thanks to some exposure in the German press and, oddly enough, some heavy criticism for the obvious invasion of privacy.
Ironically, Anonymous is getting in trouble for not respecting anonymity online. One Internet lawyer told Deutsche Welle that the attack on neo-Nazis deserve the public's ire because "It's a misuse of anonymity." The paper's John Blau quotes a few other critics in summing up the backlash:
Simone Rafael from the anti-Nazi Web forum, netz-gegen-nazis.de, said it was good "to remove the (Nazi) filth from the Net for few days." But he criticized the move to publish personal data on the Internet without permission. "If some extreme right-winger were do to this, we'd be furious, too," Rafael told Deutsche in an e-mail. Thomas Hoeren, a legal media professor at the University of Münster referred to the hackers' assault as "mean" and said such "data theft is punishable by law." But the problem, he added, is finding the people because they operate anonymously.
Even the irony is ironic. Besides the increasingly infamous SQL-injection attack they use to bring down websites and even entire networks, Anonymous is probably most famous for d0xing people. (To "d0x" someone is to reveal his or her true identity -- it's a hacker thing.) One of the biggest hacks of 2011 involved releasing the personal details of the gamers in Sony's Playstation Network, and for months now, the Anonymous spinoff group #AntiSec has been tracking down and releasing all kinds of personal details of various law enforcement personnel, from immigration officers in Arizona to pepper-spraying cops in New York City. One could easily make the argument that Anonymous publishing the home address and phone number of some random cop is a pretty unprovoked if despicable thing to do. And even though its technically illegal to threaten a police officer, the collective's not really sparked an ideological debate like the one now bubbling up in Germany for its past d0xing adventures.
So what's the big deal auf deutsch? Well, Germany's complicated history of privacy violations for one. Ironically enough -- and we promise that will be the last use of the term "irony" -- the decade or so of Nazi rule and the scrutiny of the Stasi, the secret police in East Germany, scarred the German people in a very specific way. With the collective memory of an era in which the right to privacy didn't exist, Germany is now hyper aware of how it treats this fundamental civil liberty. This is why the fiercest resistance against Facebook's creeping deeper and deeper into its users' data, most recently by launching a facial recognition feature that sparked a pan-European investigation into the company's privacy practices. Germany is a little more sensitive to these issues than its neighbors, but remember: pretty much all of Europe had to suffer through Nazi rule, and the resulting fear of spying.
This doesn't mean that Germany likes neo-Nazis. Actually, it's quite the opposite. But as easy as it is forget, Anonymous's latest critics would argue, bigots are humans too, and humans deserve rights -- even if they use those rights for bigotry. Shaming racists by pulling off their masks goes is old hat, and it remains to be seen if Anonymous's war on neo-Nazis will have the same effect that "Klan buster" Stetson Kennedy's crusade against the Klu Klux Klan a century ago. It seems pretty certain, however, that Germans aren't going to stand for hackers snooping around in their databases. Not that they can do anything to stop Anonymous, you know. Those kids are elusive.