Two weeks ago, police officers from Scotland Yard arrested a 19-year-old Internet hacker named Ryan Cleary at his mother's home in Wickford. In the pictures that the authorities took of his bedroom, the only visible window is covered with tinfoil. Cleary's mother later said that her son had not left the room since Christmas - except to go to the bathroom.
Ryan Cleary barely existed in the physical world. He lived his life on the Internet, where he was not Ryan Cleary but an alternate version of himself called ViraL.
Cleary seems to have been an almost absurdly exaggerated version of the hacker loner, but as ViraL, he was allegedly one of the "key figures" in one of the most famous organisations in the digital underworld. He was associated with the hacker group Anonymous, which had recently captured a lot of attention for a series of attacks on powerful targets, including Sony and MasterCard. But he had defected. He was said to have somehow been involved in the formation of LulzSec, a band of self-styled pirates who roamed the Internet shooting off their Internet weapons, paralysing websites and publishing people's personal emails for laughs, or in the slang of the Internet underworld, lulz. Their emblem was a child's drawing of a man with a monocle and a top hat.
Cleary's arrest gave an actual face to the group, a fleshy face with dark eyes and a sharp nose and of course, a pale complexion. It also drew attention to Cleary's history with Anonymous, portions of which have been documented in detail.
Hackers have a habit of publishing logs of their chat-room conversations in forums where everyone can read them. In the logs that hackers claim show Cleary's conversations, he comes across as intelligent, boastful and nasty - he brags about being able to drain funds from the bank accounts he hacks, he threatens to ruin the websites of his critics and he rails against anyone who "fails to understand" him. How much of what he says is true has yet to be determined, but between these records and the testimony of other hackers who have communicated with him it is possible to piece together a basic narrative of his relationship with Anonymous.
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Anonymous first captured widespread attention about seven months ago, when MasterCard, Visa and PayPal yielded to pressure from the US government and suspended payments to WikiLeaks. A loose aggregation of hacker rebels, they saw WikiLeaks as an ally in their fight against the status quo, and they struck out at PayPal and the credit card companies, crippling their websites and costing them untold sums.
Over the following months, they expanded their range of targets; they attacked a web-security firm that sought to expose them; they attacked Egyptian government sites during the revolt against Mubarak. Their mission, as they described it, was to expose the inner working of banks, corporations, governments and other powerful entities that exercise control over people’s lives.
They insisted that Anonymous was not so much a group as a “meme,” an idea that had spread through the Internet like a contagion, inflaming people’s imaginations and inspiring them to rise up against the establishment. They claimed to have no leaders, no hierarchy. Anyone who wanted to act in the name of Anonymous was free to do so. In the ideal version of themselves that they presented to the world, and to potential members, Anonymous was a sort of microcosm of the Utopian society that some of its members were determined to usher into existence.
In reality, though, Anonymous acted more like a corporation, or a military organisation, than many of its members cared to admit. Every time it attacked a government website or a company or bank, its members convened in one of several chat rooms. These rooms essentially served as the group’s command centers - places where people gave and receive orders, shared information, coordinated their movements.
Power in Anonymous was measured by how much access you were given to the digital commands and data that allowed you to control what happened in these rooms. At the bottom of the hierarchy were the foot soldiers, the pawns - they had authority over no one but themselves. At the top were the generals, who owned the servers on which the rooms were located and had “godlike” powers over everyone else, as one expert put it in a recent conversation. These included the power to create rules and to exile anyone who broke them.
On the middle tier were the lieutenants, or "operators." They had power over everyone but the generals. Cleary was an operator, but he seems to have been dissatisfied with this status. In interviews, he suggested he was frustrated by the group’s contradiction of its anti-hierarchical ideals. According to several hackers and private investigators who have followed his activities, the real reason for his frustration was that he wanted to be the leader himself.
The real leader was a mysterious figure who went by the uncharacteristically boring name of “Owen.” Cleary and Owen clashed. As Cleary’s status in Anonymous rose, so did his expectations. He demanded more power from Owen, and Owen refused to comply. Clearly complained about him - viciously - to other Anonymous members.
Owen stripped Cleary of his “operator” status, reducing him to the level of a prole. So Clearly struck back. Among other things, he released the IP addresses for dozens of Anonymous members. He unmasked them.
In the criminal underworld of the Internet, exposing someone’s actual, physical identity is about the worst thing you can do. This is true even for organisations that aren't called Anonymous. In Anonymous, the founding document - the Little Red Book, the Declaration of Independence - was “V is for Vendetta,” a comic book series by Alan Moore that was made into a movie starring Hugo Weaving and Natalie Portman. In the story, which was inspired by the life of the sixteenth-century British proto-anarchist Guy Fawkes, a masked hero called “V” embarks on a violent campaign to overthrow the totalitarian state and re-establish the individual liberty of the British people.
Lots of comic book heroes wear masks, but in “V is for Vendetta,” the mask itself is of paramount importance. Toward the end of the story, the hero is assassinated, and in the minutes leading up to his death, a girl whom he has trained as a replacement dons the mask and becomes “V”, carrying on his campaign against the state. The power of “V”, it turns out, resides not in the physical body of whoever wears the mask but in the mask itself. Only by destroying the mask can the revolution be stopped.
Cleary had himself been unmasked by enemies four years ago, when he was 14. Before Anonymous formed, many of the hackers who would later become leaders in the organisation hung out on a message-board of a website called 4chan. This board was the seedy underbelly of the Internet - it was the equivalent of the archetypal bar in detective movies where lowlifes and criminals trade stories and tips and occasionally beat each other up. Clearly was a regular there, but for reasons that aren’t completely clear, he got angry at the other regulars and lashed out against the them using a rare technological weapon to temporarily shut down the site.
The weapon was a “botnet”. Acquiring a botnet is fairly easy: You simply go to one of the backrooms of the Internet, not 4chan but one of the countless other shady hang-outs where you can buy a code, a virus, that allows you to infect other computers and essentially transform them (unbeknown to their owners) into your slaves. What sets one botnet apart from another is its size, and by all accounts, Cleary's botnet was massive. From his dark room in Wickford, he controlled tens of thousands of computers around the world.
The “master” of a botnet can use the weapon to assist in any number of ordinary computer crimes - stealing credit-card information, account passwords, home addresses. But a botnet can also be used to knock websites offline in something called a Distributed Denial of Service attack, or DDOS, which is less like a typical crime and more like an act of sabotage. By commanding thousands of computers to talk to the same website at once, the "master” can essentially overwhelm the website’s capacity for processing information, flooding it with gibberish.
That’s what Cleary did to the message board of 4chan. The other regulars were unhappy about this, and some of them responded by tracking down his private information, including his name, and publishing it online. In their conversational threads, they called him names. They posted the number of a local pizzeria and sent pizzas to his house. He'd become a pariah within a community of pariahs.
Over the next few years, he stayed fairly quiet, but his botnet continued to grow. And it was perhaps because of this weapon that he found his way to a position of power within Anonymous. In the past month, Clearly has allegedly used the botnet to assist members of Anonymous and LulzSec in bringing down the websites of the British Phonographic Industry, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, the British Serious Organised Crime Agency, the US Senate and the CIA. It is for these crimes that he is now being investigated.
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Apart from unmasking members of Anonymous, Cleary hurt them in several other ways too. When Owen demoted Cleary, he did not seem to realise that the command room they were fighting over was actually located on a computer in Cleary’s bedroom. Back in January, the FBI detained Owen and 39 other members of Anonymous and seized their computers. Anonymous needed to replace his equipment, and Cleary volunteered his server. When Owen punished him, Cleary withdrew the machine, essentially destroying the groups' main command center. Anonymous was thrown into disarray.
It was in this atmosphere of chaos and conflict that LulzSec was formed. The exact role that Cleary played in the group’s formation is unclear. For a while, he lent his botnet to their attacks, but as time went on, he appears to have alienated himself from the group, just as he alienated himself from 4chan and Anonymous. Four years after his 4chan enemies unmasked him, a member of LulzSec dug up his private information and once again published it. This information is believed to have contributed to his arrest.
In “V is for Vendetta,” the revolution triumphs over the establishment. For now, the Anonymous story seems to be headed toward a different sort of ending. After arresting Cleary, Scotland Yard reported that they had seized a “mind-boggling” amount of information from his computer. They have not specified how they intend to use it, but people close to the case believe it will enable them and their FBI counterparts to prosecute the other high-ranking members of Anonymous and LulzSec, many of whom have already been unmasked.
In the days following Cleary's arrest, Cleary’s mother told the press that she was afraid her son might attempt suicide. She said he’d threatened to "slit his wrists" if his computer was ever taken away from him, and she apparently had reason to believe that this was not just talk. When he was ten years old, she said, she’d walked into his room to find him hanging from a noose he'd made from the belt of a bathrobe.
It's hard to say whether Cleary is aware that his mother has let the world in on this darkest of secrets. Attempts to reach him at the phone number that his enemies published online have not succeeded, and his lawyer has not responded to a request for an interview.
One of the few details known about his current state is his physical location. After his arrest, a psychologist gave him a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome and Agoraphobia, and he was sent home, where he is now awaiting trial. As a condition of his bail, he is not allowed to leave the house without his mother beside him. He has also been forbidden from using the Internet. The establishment has cut him off from both the world that surrounds him and the world where he spent nearly every waking hour. His “true” identity - his mask - has been taken from him. He is not "V." He is an isolated teenager named Ryan Cleary.