Open letter to Anonymous group: Right fight, wrong approach

Roger A. Grimes urges members of Anonymous to eschew illegal practices in their fight for social justice

The online social activist group Anonymous continues to make headlines. The collective has successfully attacked a variety of different organizations, such as HBGary and Bank of America, and exposed their private and confidential information. Following is an open letter to the members of Anonymous.

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Dear Anonymous members:

I've read the headlines and articles concerning your group's activities and have sat uncomfortably impressed. It's like hearing that some criminals pulled off a huge multi-million-dollar bank heist without shooting anyone. Your actions are notable for their audaciousness and scope, but illegal nevertheless.

Although I'm sure some of the "facts" are misconstrued or wrong, the basic idea of what your latest activities are trying to accomplish lately is coming through loud and clear: You want to punish those who harm your friends and advocacies, level the playing field a bit, and perhaps even give opponents a reason to pause as they consider additional tactics. On some level I can respect that. I can't help feeling a small amount of admiration when you revealed that your adversaries were possibly considering likely illegal tactics to fight you.

I, too, am a passionate supporter of human rights, free speech, and justice. Much in this world upsets me, and I frequently post my grievances and opinions in public forums. I've actively rallied online for many causes. I know the difference between receiving a placating form letter back in reply versus a thoughtful response. I know what it's like to be ignored, and I know what it's like to think about crossing the line between legal and illegal responses in the name of a just social cause.

About two decades ago, I contemplated the risk of going to jail over an issue I strongly believed in. At the time, Phil Zimmerman, creator of the encryption program PGP was facing possible treason charges because his software contained what the U.S. government considered overly strong encryption that could easily be used by foreign nations. I was so upset that Zimmerman could go to jail for providing such a wonderful program that I came up with an incredible scheme: I created a website where anyone could enter his or her email address and send a copy of PGP to a randomly selected foreign email address while carbon copying the White House at the same time.

In my plan, I figured the United States would have to arrest hundreds of thousands of us for crimes greater than the one for which Zimmerman was being considered. He only wrote the program, but we would be illegally distributing it. I contacted Newsweek for the publicity and the magazine readily agreed to participate. I told my wife (we had two young children) what I was planning to do and how I risked being prosecuted and going to prison. She wasn't happy, but she saw that she couldn't stop me.

When I reached the final step before the website was to go live, with Newsweek also on the phone, I called Phil Zimmerman to tell him of my support for him and my plans. To my utter astonishment, he told me I didn't understand the consequences of what I was planning. He said he didn't support my actions and hung up the phone.

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