As a London correspondent, Parmy Olson used to cover a range of European business and financial stories for Forbes. Two years ago, though, she starting filing more stories about technology, "in particular disruptive people in the field of tech," and what started as a series of blog posts and magazine articles eventually became We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency (Little, Brown). Olson probes the volatile mixture of social activism and digital pranking that led to the supernova-like fame of LulzSec, a small group of hackers split off from the larger, more fractious Anonymous movement, who for two months in early 2011 became the most prominent Internet tricksters on the planet--recognized within their own subculture, to be sure, but also drawing the attention of the mainstream media (and, of course, law enforcement authorities).
What initially drew you to Anonymous and LulzSec as a story?
I've always been fascinated by subcultures and secret communities and was intrigued when I first read news reports that painted Anonymous as a mysterious "group of hackers" that had come out of nowhere to disrupt the websites of major companies. There weren't many reports that featured interviews with people within this "group," so partly to satisfy my own curiosity I started reaching out to supporters of Anonymous by e-mail and on IRC [Internet Relay Chat]. A few good sources initially reached out to me too. What fascinated me further was the culture on which the community was founded--one of messing with people, pranks, disruption, lawlessness, unhindered creativity, a loose set of rules and etiquette and a collective identity.
I thought it would be interesting to tell the story of that movement through the eyes of some of its core participants, interweaving the personal stories with that of its wider evolution.
How did you cultivate so many of the key figures of LulzSec as sources?
It always starts with one or two good sources, and then you ask them to introduce you to someone else. This is sort of what happened with me getting to know people in Anonymous--I worked through the network and asked to be introduced to people.
I never really worried too much about being on the receiving end of a "life ruin"--for one thing I try to keep my security settings as tight as possible for all my web accounts, and on top of that I keep my online and offline life pretty separate. I'm aware that if my Facebook were to get hacked or my book's Amazon listing spammed--as seems to be the case at the moment-- life goes on and you just have to stay focused on creating good-quality work. [After appearing on The Daily Show on June 18, Olson was hit with a string of one-star reviews on Amazon.com.]
The other point is that I've always tried to use an even-handed, objective approach when writing about Anonymous for Forbes, and did the same for the book--trying not to take sides or use sensationalist language, but aiming to lay the facts bare. Often truth is stranger than fiction and there's no need for sensationalism--just good pace and story telling. While I was writing the book, a number of people in Anonymous told me that they appreciated this approach.
What surprised you the most as this story unfolded?
There were a number of surprises: finding out that a member of Julian Assange's inner circle had reached out to try to collaborate with the Anonymous splinter group LulzSec, allegedly on behalf of Assange himself; that Anonymous was so much more disorganized than I thought and so good at manipulating the public's perceptions of it. I think what startled me most, though, was when I met people associated with Anonymous in person.
It was always a privilege to gain people's trust in that way, but it was also incredibly interesting to see how different people could be IRL [in real life] than online, and how Anonymous as a platform could amplify those online alter egos. Someone recently told me that the story of this book isn't as much about hacking as it is about how a lot of young people got swept up in something they didn't understand. The end of the book features a face-to-face meeting that I arranged between one of the founders of LulzSec and another Anon, and the conversation that occurs between the two of them sort of blew my mind. --Ron Hogan