LulzSec and Anonymous are the most famous hacker organizations around: if you’ve been reading tech news at all recently, you know who both of them are.

They bring down sites with distributed denial of service attacks, and they hack in and retrieve sensitive information. They look pretty similar on the surface.

But there’s a tendency to paint them with the same brush. For instance, this Geekosystem post refers to both groups when rattling off a list of their attacks that include Sony, porn sites, Nintendo and Minecraft. These are attacks that were executed by LulzSec alone.

But does it matter that we paint them with the same brush? Aren’t they all hackers committing crimes?

I don’t know that Anonymous would be too pleased with that perspective. The older, larger group chooses its targets based on who the public at large believes need to be brought into line — governments, companies and organizations that are participating in significant social and moral wrongs. According to Anonymous itself, there has to be at least something of a consensus among everyday people that the target is doing something bad.

And LulzSec is making it harder for the public to take Anonymous seriously.

LulzSec appear to have some primitive anarchistic political motives that underlie some of their attacks — when they took down the Senate they said that they ‘don’t like’ the US government much — but for the most part is like a group of children burning cane toads in the backyard, giggling to each other as the animal crackles and bursts.

They do things “for the lulz.”

I don’t want to get too dramatic, but it’s a bit like Batman and Joker, really. On the one hand we’ve got a vigilante who tries to right wrongs through illegal means, and just like in the comics and movies there’s a tug-of-war in public opinion about whether they are really good or bad.

Anonymous’ recent attacks on Iranian government websites are one such example. The group opposes Iran for a laundry list of quite valid reasons, from extreme censorship to persecution of minorities — such as the Baha’i community and atheists — and the torture and killing of protesters and those with dissenting opinions.

LulzSec, on the other hand, is the Joker, causing havoc and chaos at random because of some deep-seated mommy issues.

And away from the halls of public debate, Batman and Joker are getting into a brawl. LulzSec is targeting 4chan, the birthplace of Anonymous, and 4chan’s /v/ users have been DDoSing anything and everything related to LulzSec, according to VentureBeat’s Matthew Lynley, who describes the situation as a civil war.

It’s likely that LulzSec is comprised of early members of Anonymous who felt constrained by the organization’s moral rules. Anonymous, for instance, never attacks the media. In an interview with an Iranian Anonymous member, he hinted at problems the leadership has had with keeping fringe elements in line. “Companies like Sony just don’t deserve to be attacked,” he had said.

The two organizations are clearly very different. Yet, in the eyes of the law at least, they’re the same, so should we paint them with the same brush, or treat one as more acceptable than the other?