Christopher Doyon—or as he's known to his 7,000+ Twitter followers, Commander X—is a homeless, fugitive hacker who has been on the run from the US government for more than four years in Canada. While there have been several high-profile cases of Anonymous members being imprisoned, Commander X is an outlier. By all accounts, he was an influential member of the hacktivist collective during its most consequential period, but he has so far escaped the fate of his former comrades.
So, as a symbol of his freedom, today X published his first book, Behind the Mask, and it's the first of its kind in terms of advancing the public record on Anonymous. While we are used to some sporadic voices from the hacktivist collective movement coming forward to the media, they are mostly heard through voice-scrambling filters in short videos announcing Anonymous operations, or from behind bars.
X's book is the antithesis of what we're used to from Anonymous; it's personal, both braggadocious and self-deprecating, and through its first-person perspective provides insight into operations of Anonymous that will be completely alien to any non-hacker reader.
It's arguably not smart to write a book like this, given the intense thirst from the FBI to capture Anonymous leaders. But when you're Commander X, who has given interviews to major publications since escaping prosecution in the US and becoming a fugitive; and who still tweets daily and taunts government agencies by writing messages on his timeline, such as "What will the FBI Cyber Crime Division do when there's no more Internet? Is Walmart hiring any security guards?" and "...if you want pigs to respect your protest, show up armed"; then quite obviously the traditionally-guarded hacker/media relationship has gone out the window.
"For those wondering how Anonymous begins a major operation, it usually starts with righteous indignation bordering on group outrage."
Behind the Mask covers a time period between 2008-2012 wherein X joins Anonymous, quickly rises to a position of influence in the decentralized organization, gets the attention of the FBI Cyber Division, and escapes the US on an underground railroad of his own design. (Of course, this is all according to the author.)
In X's words, his initial thoughts on Anonymous were that it was a "crazy ass science fiction cult" where people wore "stupid Guy Fawkes masks." In fact, he was apparently told to join Anonymous while he was serving as a "Commander" of a small cyber-focused militia called the People's Liberation Front (PLF), run out of a "dungeon" in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where "every square inch" of the walls were "plastered with concert posters (mostly Grateful Dead), protest fliers… and hand-drawn art, mostly political in nature."
It's here that X got an order from the "Supreme Commander of the PLF," a man we know in the book only as Commander Adama, to become an Anonymous member. This is provable insofar as the People's Liberation Front certainly exists, and Christopher Doyon is a real person. Otherwise, Behind the Mask has to be read with a certain healthy skepticism about the events detailed wherein.
Nonetheless, Adama's intention for X joining Anonymous was allegedly twofold: 1) For the PLF to form an alliance with the group and 2) to launch an offensive against the municipal government of Santa Cruz for its treatment of the homeless—a city where public sleeping is still criminalized.
Apparently, Adama wanted revenge for a homeless friend of his living in Santa Cruz, who was found dead under a bridge.
X accepted the mission quickly, which provides insight into the mindset of hackers like him. In more than one instance, he makes it clear in Behind the Mask that he and his colleagues were often driven to action by pure and simple anger: "For those wondering how Anonymous begins a major operation, it usually starts with righteous indignation bordering on group outrage."
After accepting the order, we pick up X's Santa Cruz mission a year in, where he is living in the mountains growing weed, or as he refers to his plants: "the girls... Twenty-six of the most gorgeous sativa/indica mix plants the likes of which you could only grow in the black earth of the Santa Cruz mountains."
It's here that he is still on a roundabout quest to obtain vengeance for the homeless. And while he did eventually take down the Santa Cruz county website in 2010 as a direct protest for the city's treatment of its street population, it was a minor defacement. X describes this kind of low-impact DDOS attack as a "smashy-smashy" operation. Despite the relatively inconsequential operation, it was this protest that led to the indictment from which X is still running from today (it carries a maximum 15-year sentence due to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act).
X's relationship with Anonymous at that time led to other notable hacks, including what he describes as the takedown of Mastercard.com by his own keystrokes ("I hit the fire button"), during the infamous Anonymous attack against credit card companies and Paypal after they cut off Wikileaks' financial lifeline.
In what is perhaps the most telling anecdote of X's life as a hacker on the run, he describes his role in attacking the government of Egypt during the Arab Spring while spending his days in a San Francisco coffee shop called Coffee to the People Cafe:
"Another area where my work had an impact was in data collection… I programmed a 'spider'... to crawl servers and harvest specific data. Mine was programmed to collect the fax numbers and E-Mail addresses of every single Egyptian. My spider, which I nick-named 'Hazel' - was not only capable of doing the task - but she could then separate the civilian from the government data. This would eventually allow Anonymous to wage psychological warfare on the Egyptian government while at the same time sending valuable information and encouragement to the Egyptian people…
This led to a somewhat comical scene of me having to spend the night sleeping in an alley behind the coffee house so I could stay connected and keep Hazel running."
This intense duality of coordinating and participating in globally influential hacks while sleeping on the street, encapsulates the fascination that journalists and activists alike have had with Commander X for years.
That said, Behind the Mask has to be taken with a grain of salt, if for no other reason than the fact it is written by one of the single most prominent evangelists of one of the most divisive, but nonetheless impactful, activist movements of all time. X is never shy to state (and perhaps overstate) Anonymous's impact; and some of his past claims verge on unbelievable.
But what's verifiable about the exploits X was involved in are historical in and of themselves; many of his colleagues were punished and imprisoned, the financial industry was spooked by Anonymous's retaliation for Wikileaks, X is a cyber-fugitive, and he is personally emblematic of a new kind of anarchistic activism that can very quickly grab the attention of the world's strongest governments.
For all these reasons, X's book is a remarkable and personal account of a uniquely bizarre adventure. His account of escaping the US is, alone, worthy of a reader's attention. According to X, he designed an underground railroad—before he knew he would have to use it himself—of willing Anonymous members or sympathizers who could, at a moment's notice, deliver a "package" from (as he puts it) one "node" to another in order to transport an American activist out of harm's way and into Canada.
Designing an underground railroad and activating it are of course two different things. And for X, who at the time was living in a camp by California's San Lorenzo river, deciding to take that voyage was at times "way too 'spy thriller'" for his own taste.
The book unfortunately ends in 2012, with X's masked appearance at the Hot Docs Film Festival premiere for Brian Kloppenberg's Anonymous documentary, We Are Legion, in Toronto. As he says, "I arrived at the world premier to play my part wearing my brown Guy Fawkes hoodie, my all access pass around my neck and a real Guy Fawkes Mask on my face." So by the end of Behind the Mask, we're left wondering what X has been up to in Canada for the past four years.
Incomplete timeline notwithstanding, the book captures a first-hand account of a man who, for better or worse, was at the switchboard during some of Anonymous's most high-profile hacks, stunts, and protests. And thus, it's an essential work in framing the impact of this controversial, decentralized, and brash hacktivist network.