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Anarchists Anonymous: Rationality Without Morality is a Bummer

8 Aug

Now, this hack into the Syrian Ministry of Defense was pretty spectacular. Here is the message Anonymous pasted, in English and Arabic, on the site:

To the Syrian people: The world stands with you against the brutal regime of Bashar Al-Assad. Know that time and history are on your side – tyrants use violence because they have nothing else, and the more violent they are, the more fragile they become. We salute your determination to be non-violent in the face of the regime’s brutality, and admire your willingness to pursue justice, not mere revenge. All tyrants will fall, and thanks to your bravery Bashar Al-Assad is next.
To the Syrian military: You are responsible for protecting the Syrian people, and anyone who orders you to kill women, children, and the elderly deserves to be tried for treason. No outside enemy could do as much damage to Syria as Bashar Al-Assad has done. Defend your country – rise up against the regime! – Anonymous

For news about Anonymous, click here. On that site, you’ll find a propaganda-ish video promoting their work:

For the last couple of days, I’ve been pondering whether Anonymous qualifies as a rational actor.

The first thing a rational insurgent will do is establish a clear set of goals. In this case, the goal appears to be total free speech–the inability of any government or any person to maintain any privacy. The rational insurgent will then survey the field of available methods by which to pursue those goals, selecting the techniques that will yield the highest return. Anonymous certainly seems to have a comparative advantage using cyberwarfare, and resorts exclusively to this highly effective strategy. Under rationality assumptions, in conflict, the incentives are generally to be maximally forthcoming with information about one’s credibility and resolve. Anonymous has clearly been forthcoming with information, releasing statements and digital media claiming and explaining different cyberattacks. So, on the surface, they’re pretty much on target as strict definitions of rationality go.

But this case is a little more complex.

First, rationality is more a process of means than ends. We simply assume that actors have goals, and make no judgments about whether the goal is crazy or sensible, right or wrong. This group’s goal is essentially anarchy. They apparently want total, free, unrestricted information, which would involve governments, corporations, hospitals, and other institutions letting go of any privacy or confidentiality. In my view, this goal is unachievable. It also violates one of the most fundamental human rights (see Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), which innumerable people have fought and died for over the millenia. And, they seem unwilling to practice unrestricted information themselves. If they were really committed to their stated goals, they’d go ahead and tell us who they were.

Second, in addition to taking down the Syrian Defense Ministry’s website, Anonymous’s compatriots Anti-Sec have also been hacking into domestic law enforcement in the United States in retaliation for the arrests of hackers affiliated with their anarchist cybernetwork (h/t to Jack D). The network claims to have “no sympathy” for the well-being of law enforcement officers in the release of their personal information, since they’ve been “oppressing” people for so long. That’s too bad. One of my family members is a cop, and he spends most of his time protecting us from folks who literally want to hurt us. He gets threatened all the time by violent suspects and has gone to considerable lengths to get his personal information removed from public records to protect himself and his family. In our system, law enforcement officers exist because we pass laws (including many that constrain their actions to guarantee something close to due process) and pay taxes willingly funding their positions. We rely on them to improve our quality of life. As indiscriminate cyberattack that fails to distinguish between legitimate targets and off-limits ones confuses people. Is the group for the people, or against them? Don’t they realize that in our system, law enforcement are civilians too? Don’t they appreciate that the very presence of law enforcement is, in part, what has assured them the quality of life that has allowed them to develop the skills they now use against law enforcement? Under rationality standards, mixed signals are a bad idea, as they distort the opponent’s perception of what the group wants. One way to mix the signals is to be indiscriminate about targeting, which makes it look like antagonism for antagonism’s sake, no matter how many communiques the group issues to explain its actions. Anonymous and its network seem to think that everybody is a potential target, whether they sympathize with their overall objectives or not.

Rationality can be tricky. A group can have a ridiculous goal but still use rational means to achieve it. But because this group has an arguably unachievable goal, uses mixed signals, and seems to be willing to throw literally everyone (except themselves) under the bus to achieve their goal, I’m not sure their stated goals are truly sincere. Instead, I think they are of the type I’d call “non-rational,” an especially perplexing type of insurgent who appears rational but is really just disrupting society for disruption’s sake.

Now that I’ve said all this, I really hope they don’t hack me.


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