(All illustrations by Sébastien Thibault)
Amanda Todd’s suicide would have likely been a low-profile investigation for police, had it not not been for the video the Port Coquitlam, B.C., girl released five weeks before she died. In it, the 15-year-old described her shame and isolation following a relentless cyberbullying campaign that started two years earlier, when Todd had flashed her breasts during a video chat with an older man-who later emailed the images to her family and friends when she refused to undress again. The heart-wrenching YouTube footage went viral after Todd took her life on October 10, 2012. (The video has since received over 20 million views.) Bloggers worldwide expressed shock and anger; and hundreds of memorial Facebook pages went up, containing tens of thousands of posts. But along with its grief, the online community also expressed a desire for justice.
Caught off guard by the reaction, the RCMP assigned about two dozen officers to find the man who had bullied Todd. Five days after the RCMP started their search-and failed to announce any leads or suspects-a New Jersey member of “hacktivist” juggernaut Anonymous entered the fray.
Emerging in the mid-2000s, Anonymous is an underground network of cyberactivists whose participants reside across the English-speaking world, including in Canada. They have no mission statement, gatekeepers or leaders. Individual Anons hook up on Internet chat forums and collaborate just long enough to pull off an operation, which they publicize via YouTube videos of masked speakers talking overtop a Dark Knight-inspired soundtrack. (They are notorious for “denial of service” attacks, in which activists overload, and crash, government or corporate websites with information streaming from multiple computers.) The group then disbands until another cause emerges.
When the Todd story broke, the New Jersey Anon had been investigating a web forum called The Daily Capper, where people share screenshots taken from video chats with underage girls. He noticed that one contributor, who went by the alias kody1206, had blackmailed another teen in much the same way Todd’s tormenter had. What’s more, this man also contributed to the forums in which the Todd video had circulated. The evidence didn’t prove that the man was Todd’s bully, but it showed a network of incriminating associations. “I wasn’t 100 per cent sure,” the Anon acknowledges, but “you would have to be insane not to realize the connections.”
He quickly assembled a compendium of personal information, including email address and the link to a Facebook page, for a 32-year-old from New Westminster, B.C. That same day, he revealed-or “doxed”-the identity behind kody1206.
In the online world, anonymity is power-indispensable not only to political activists flouting oppressive regimes or whistle-blowers channelling information to reporters, but also to criminals looking to commit stealth acts of fraud, theft and bullying. Doxing (“dox” stands for “documents”) is the weapon of choice for Internet crusaders because it removes the privilege of anonymity from those perceived to have abused it. For Anonymous, it’s the punishment that fits all online crimes.
The outing of kody1206 took social media by storm. The RCMP, predictably, were outraged. While they haven’t explicitly denied that the man known as kody1206 is a suspect, they allege the Anonymous accusations are “unfounded.” Sgt. Peter Thiessen, a spokesperson for the RCMP in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, says the police are fully equipped to handle the Todd investigation. He’s frustrated by what he considers unnecessary interference. “They’re commenting on a police investigation they have no part in,” he says.
Anonymous’s lightning-quick reflexes left the RCMP in the awkward position of being upstaged by an Internet action that made them appear sluggish and ineffective. The dynamic between law enforcement and hacktivists, however, has become far more than just a public-relations battle. It’s a turf war over who has the right to police the Internet.