Anonymous: Behind the mask

Houston-area man discusses involvement with global hacker group

HOUSTON – A Houston area man has come forward to talk about his involvement with the global hacker group Anonymous and why he severed all ties with the elusive organization.

Mike Jones claims to be an original member of an organization that, over the years, been credited with cyber-attacks on government institutions, large corporations and terrorist groups.

"We were looking for new ways, new ways of thinking," Jones said.

Jones said the initial idea that led to the formation of the group was "injustice." Jones said many of the original members were spurred by a belief the federal government had become overly intrusive into the average citizen's life following the Sept. 11 attacks and unethical practices by corporate America.

"After 9-11 there was a swing of taking people's civil liberties. There was a knockdown of people's rights and there was a fight for gaining that back," Jones said. "We kind of got together, put our heads together and labeled ourselves, basically, freedom fighters. They were aimed at people and organizations that we felt were on the wrong side of the law to begin with."

"While you use the words 'freedom fighters,' others out there use the word, 'criminal.' Do you consider yourself a criminal?" Channel 2's Robert Arnold asked.

"No, I don't," Jones said.

"You have broken laws that are on the books. Is that not correct or do you disagree with that?" asked Arnold.

"I don't disagree, but at the time those laws weren't created. They used us as a way to form new laws," Jones said.

At this point in reading if your mental image of Jones is one of a rebel sitting in a dark room lurking on the Internet, consider that he is a husband, father and decorated veteran. Jones enlisted in the Navy during the first Iraq war and re-enlisted after the attacks on 9-11.

"I went into military intelligence after 9-11," said Jones. "There was definitely an intelligence gap, and that's where I wanted to be."

Jones said his work with Anonymous started after he left the Navy and while he would not share specific details of some the group's exploits, he said some of what he and the collective did was expose weaknesses in computer systems that can affect the general public.

"Looking at systems for vulnerabilities is something that helps all of us," Jones said.

"Why should you be allowed to, I guess, to just poke around in the dark and see if you can get in?" asked Arnold.

"The way I look at it is, either I can test it or the Chinese can. Would you rather me test it or someone from China or North Korea test it?" said Jones.

Jones said his reasons for distancing and ultimately leaving Anonymous were threefold. The first was seeing friends sent to prison under, what at the time, were newly created cyber-laws.

"They held us to almost a terrorist level. Matter of fact they called it cyber-terrorism," Jones said. "I think that made a lot of us feel like less than citizens. When I look at my kids, jail is not somewhere I want to be."

The second reason is Jones said he feels like the original intent of Anonymous has become diluted.

"The idea is disappearing. Guys are buying Anonymous masks at Party City, they're running through the streets and starting fires with the Anonymous mask on, that's not who we are," said Jones. "The idea was a pure idea and it was not physical or life-threatening."

The third reason was fear of jeopardizing what has become a successful career in the private sector: using skills honed in the underground to help shore up weaknesses in our country's cyber infrastructure, as well as the technology we use in our homes. Jones said after leaving the military, many private-sector companies were hiring people with his particular skill set.

"Hiring people like me to defend against what we know is out there. It's there, the threat is real," said Jones. "They only way really to know their vulnerabilities and the threat to their companies was to find people like me, that were already there, that were willing to work for an honest paycheck, but also keep their head in the underground."

"Why reveal yourself at this point?" asked Arnold.

"At this point it's not a coming out, it's a walking away," said Jones. "I'm walking away from Anonymous."

Jones said publicly talking about his past involvement with the group will also hopefully remove future questions about where his allegiances lie.

While KPRC could not concretely prove or disprove Jones' involvement with Anonymous, we were able to verify his Naval record and his work in the private sector. KPRC also reached out to Anonymous through a pair of Twitter accounts but did not receive a response.

KPRC also spoke with University of Houston cyber-security expert Dr. Chris Bronk.

"You know this is not an organization that gives out a membership card," Bronk said.

"Would it surprise you to see one of the original guys coming out and talking like this?" asked Arnold.

"I'm not surprised at all. I have a good friend who was part of the 'Cult of the Dead Cow' hacker group, which was very big in the 90s and he's very legit now," said Bronk. "Does anyone want to be a revolutionary forever? Probably not."

Bronk also echoed some of the points Jones made regarding a dilution of Anonymous' original message.

"Infringement on the Anonymous brand became a serious problem for the organization pretty quickly as it rose to power," Bronk said. "We had no way of knowing, 'Are these guys true Anonymous confederates, or are these guys who can put up a YouTube video with a good Guy Fawkes mask that you can buy at any party store?'"

Bronk added it is no longer uncommon for those who acquired skills in the digital sub-culture to later find legitimate work as penetration testers.

"It's a career where you can make a lot of money," Bronk said.

Bronk said part of our country's defense also now depends on finding people who can help safeguard against cyber-attacks and intrusions.

"Hacker power is real. It's part of the overall mix of power on the planet today," Bronk said.

This month the Department of Defense launched the "Hack the Pentagon" initiative. According to federal officials, the DoD is inviting vetted hackers to "test the department's cybersecurity" under a pilot program. A March 2 news release reads, "The bug bounty program is modeled after similar competitions conducted by some of the nation's biggest companies."

In February, President Barack Obama's proposed 2017 fiscal year budget called for spending $19 billion on cybersecurity.

About the Author:

Award winning investigative journalist who joined KPRC 2 in July 2000. Husband and father of the Master of Disaster and Chaos Gremlin. “I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I wake up to drink coffee.”