(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.
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.
Over the past decade, the Internet has helped agentless authors become international bestsellers and turned YouTube musicians into chart-topping stars. Crime-fighting is yet another area where the line between professional and amateur is disintegrating. It’s no wonder there’s tension between the two groups.
Vigilantism, however, never exists in a vacuum. It signals a larger dissatisfaction with police. In Canada, this skepticism dates as far back as 1836, when Quebec City residents joined together to combat a rash of banditry that had overwhelmed the authorities. In the 1890s, Yukon miners set up posses to punish thieves and outlaws, compensating for a lack of competent policing in the region.
But law enforcement has also encouraged public participation by turning to citizen watchdogs. Three decades ago, with rising crime rates and budget cuts making police work increasingly difficult, Canadian precincts started to outsource their work to the public. In 1980, the RCMP battled vandalism, grain theft and cattle rustling in rural Alberta by organizing range-patrol operations in pickup trucks outfitted with CB radios. By year’s end, they’d enlisted over 1,000 volunteers, resulting in what residents described as a noticeable decline in crime. A year later, Ottawa municipal authorities founded Canada’s first Neighbourhood Watch program, in which citizens were asked to conduct surveillance from their homes, leading to a 70 per cent drop in break-ins. Alberta’s range-patrol program still exists today, and variations of the Neighbourhood Watch model are used in every major Canadian municipality.
Tech-savvy police departments have started to build on this legacy. Last July, the Toronto Police Service released Canada’s first Crime Stoppers app, a free smartphone application through which users can access updated information about wanted criminals, notifications concerning crimes committed in their neighbourhoods and GPS directions to the nearest police stations. Most importantly, the app enables citizens to submit photographic or video evidence of suspicious activity: robberies, assaults, hit-and-run accidents. Before being forwarded to the authorities, all submissions are “washed” by Crime Stoppers personnel so the cops can’t ascertain the senders’ phone numbers or IP addresses. While anonymous evidence is inadmissible in court, it can aid detectives by corroborating pre-existing hunches or pointing out new avenues for investigation.
Det. Darlene Ross of Crime Stoppers Toronto insists that the program doesn’t aim to enlist permanent volunteers. “We’re not asking people to become agents for the police,” she says. Still, she hopes that whenever one of the app’s 30,000 Toronto users happens to collect pertinent material, he or she will forward it on.