I've had this column in the back of my head for a while now. Since Extra Credits brought it up, this week seems like a good time to tackle the topic. (Also, do make sure to see Extra Credits. Even if you usually stick to reading and don't watch videos because you're surfing the web from work. It's exactly the show I would make if I made a video series. And was less of a crank. And had artistic ability. And more talent. And could talk like a chipmunk.)
There is nothing more fearsome than a small group of self-organized, highly motivated people who have been united by a common cause. Sometimes these are very good and herald positive change. (Peaceful protest, various types of non-violent civil disobedience.) And sometimes they are shockingly bad. (Organized crime, terrorists.) But the important thing is that their combined efforts allow them to effect change that none of them could accomplish alone.
The drawback of organized groups is that they're vulnerable to standard law enforcement. All the police have to do is grab one or two members of the group. Imagine the police drag you in and explain that they want the names of all of the people in your organization. They have a list of things your group has done or is believed to have done, and they explain how you're facing ten years in prison. If you cooperate, you'll just get a few years of probation. Moreover, they say that they have arrested one of the other members of your group. He's going to talk. If he talks first, he'll get probation and you'll do the hard time. Your friends are all going to end up in jail either way, so you might as well save yourself, right? After all, you're not one of the bad ones, are you? You're one of the reasonable ones. We're just after the more dangerous members. Don't make us lock you away for ten years of beatings and prison rape. Just answer our questions and you can avoid this horrible future. You'll be home by Friday.
Maybe they're lying about the prison sentence. Maybe they're lying about arresting your colleague, or about the charges against you. Maybe they don't care about you at all. Maybe they just want information and are willing to terrify you with prison to do it. It doesn't matter. It takes an exceptionally disciplined person to stand firm in the face of this kind of intimidation. Odds are, not everyone is exceptionally disciplined. The arrest of one leads to the arrest of others, and others. Sooner or later, the police will know who everyone is, what they've done, and where to find them.
Through the magic of the internet, Anonymous has found an interesting solution to this problem, which is to have an organization where nobody knows anyone else. Normal police methods don't work on them, because they don't have any relevant information to share. Even if the cops pierce the veil of secrecy and locate a single member of the group, that arrest won't impair the organization as a whole. Worse, it forms an investigative dead-end.