Working with anonymity
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ISIS’ recent actions have had a global impact, especially the major attack on Paris that killed over a hundred people. There have been various reactions, but the response by the hacktivist group, Anonymous, has especially garnered attention. Anonymous is a hacking collective formed in 2004 with members from around the globe, and their latest target is ISIS. People have mixed feelings about the organization. They are difficult to track and could potentially release inaccurate information doing more harm than good. However, in the fight against ISIS, the people involved with Anonymous are exactly who we need to foil their future plans.
These people come from diverse backgrounds and include expert hackers as well as working professionals who engage in smaller scale online activism. The main issue with Anonymous’ activism is that because it is so quick to release data on specific persons of interest, there are many opportunities for error. The most productive way for Anonymous to operate would be in concert with intelligence agencies like CSIS and the CIA as opposed to freely releasing information to the masses independently.
Anonymous’ hacktivism is comparable to citizen journalism — there is no central power controlling the content that is released to the public, and fact-checking cannot occur until the information is out there. There is a reasonable amount of concern regarding Anonymous’ system of online politicking. Author of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, Gabriella Coleman, told CBC in a recent interview that she is very worried about “doxxing,” the practice of determining a person’s real identity and releasing it online. She notes that if anyone were incorrectly named, the ramifications could be disastrous for affected individuals.
While the vast majority of people generally agree that ISIS must be stopped, Anonymous’ methods of doing so can be questionable. For example, two Anonymous members hacked Australian and international government websites from Perth and Sydney in May 2014. They stole personal data, an act that resulted in their arrest. The Anonymous network must remember that just because it is capable of wreaking online havoc, it should still operate within legal boundaries. However, when a network is so extensive and there is no one at the helm of the operations, who is to be held accountable? More importantly, how do we find those involved? While one would like to believe Anonymous to be the Crime Stoppers of the online world, it can be dangerous to give individuals a platform to release highly sensitive and confidential information without considering national security. On the other hand, having a global network of people watching criminal organizations like ISIS also has its benefits.
This past summer, Anonymous affiliate, GhostSec, presented data collected after carefully monitoring ISIS social media accounts to U.S. national security. This intelligence helped prevent a planned attack in Tunisia. In addition, the group provided law enforcement with leads that were considered instrumental in foiling a terror plot in New York this past July. Third party groups like Anonymous have their merits. They are able to focus on smaller things that have far-reaching impacts. For example, Anonymous removed over 5,000 ISIS Twitter accounts recently in hopes of reducing their online presence and stopping the spread of propaganda. This act was the effort of many ordinary people coming together and mass reporting the accounts to Twitter. It is a means to distract, but also to prevent outreach to people abroad who may be susceptible to the misinformed temptations associated with joining ISIS.
Anonymous and online vigilantism have their flaws, but their value should not go unnoticed. We should be thankful for the members of Anonymous who do maintain correspondence with law enforcement because they have been crucial in identifying perpetrators in the past and will likely continue to do so. Rather than condemning a group that generally aims to create positive social change, we should find a way to ensure that they do not operate entirely separately from intelligence agencies in order to establish a systematic way of releasing accurate information to the public.