For Christopher Schneider, a University of British Columbia sociologist who specializes in digital media, the incident was yet another example of how police departments are facing a new cohort of competitors: cybervigilantes, unencumbered by legal protocol and able to respond swiftly at a time when speedy resolutions are not only valued but expected.
“We want everything instantaneously, including justice,” says Schneider, who claims that Anonymous’s cavalier attitude about due process is setting a dangerous precedent. The RCMP are currently following up on over 1,000 tips relating to the Todd case, a process that includes tracing IP addresses, investigating leads, filing warrants, cross-referencing information and nailing down eyewitness testimonies. These techniques may seem antiquated in our go-anywhere, see-anything digital era, but police work is still the route through which credible cases are built and convictions secured. “It takes time to go through all of the data to prove a perpetrator did what we think he did,” explains Schneider. “When you’re potentially going to deprive somebody of their liberty, you’ve got to be sure, beyond a reasonable doubt, that they’re guilty.”
Over the last decade, the Mounties have set up special units that seek to catch online predators, often by doggedly scanning chat rooms for suspicious activity. But as much as police denounce their new competitors, the fact remains that groups like Anonymous have advantages that cops don’t. They know how to navigate the web’s seedy back alleys and can interact with people not immediately accessible to authorities. (After doxing kody1206, the New Jersey Anon was approached by the founder of The Daily Capper, who offered a cache of new incriminating information against kody1206.) Police may have money and resources, but Anons know the Internet like nobody else.
“It would be nice if the police had some sort of way to reach out to hackers and legally bring them on board,” says Richard Frank, a Simon Fraser University criminologist and computer scientist. “These people would be an invaluable resource to police.” At the very least, he argues, groups like the RCMP need to get better at exploiting social media, engage the public more effectively and develop the same intimate familiarity with subcultures as that possessed by their hacker counterparts. If they don’t, Frank says, the police will continue to be outpaced by online predators and the cybervigilantes who pursue them.