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.
The thing is, crowd-sourced policing works. On June 15, 2011, the Vancouver Canucks experienced a bitter Game 7 defeat to the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup finals. By 8 p.m. that evening, roughly 100,000 Vancouverites were streaming through the downtown core-some of them looting stores, breaking windows and burning cop cars. Few of them stopped to consider that they were under surveillance.
In the wake of the city’s previous hockey riot 17 years earlier, police had set up kiosks across the city where citizens could review media footage and identify perpetrators. In 2011, the evidence came from a more ubiquitous source: hundreds of smartphones, on which bystanders collected 15,000 photographs and 1,500 hours worth of video evidence, much of which was uploaded to blogs and Facebook pages.
The aftermath of the 2011 riots saw the rise of one of the world’s biggest “name and shame” campaigns, in which hundreds of websites posted images and videos of alleged rioters, sometimes even matching names to pictures using Facebook photos as evidence. Some of these forums-like identifyrioters.com and the now defunct canucks2011.com-were explicitly dedicated to outing riot participants, but others were pre-existing blogs that jumped on the bandwagon in the heat of the moment. The blog Delicious Juice, run by a Vancouver technical writer named Kimli Welsh, began posting evidence about the Vancouver riots almost immediately, including the names of underage suspects. Her readership ballooned from an average 4,000 hits a week to 200,000 in 36 hours. Welsh insists that she was merely holding people accountable for their public actions: “If you don’t want to be called out for lighting a cop car on fire, don’t light cop cars on fire.”
Schneider is uneasy about these crowd-sourcing efforts, which, he points out, “are sometimes in direct violation of the law.” They frequently subvert due process by incriminating suspects who have not been proven guilty. They also violate young offenders’ rights by identifying underage suspects by name, as was the case with Nathan Kotylak, a high-school athlete whose family received death threats after photographs of him vandalizing a police car appeared online. But cops are hesitant to clamp down on such activities, despite their dubious legality, since they’re an invaluable, and free, resource.
Sgt. Laurence Rankin was the Vancouver officer in charge of investigations during the riots. He set up an email hotline to redirect the flow of information away from vigilante forums and into the hands of police. But he and his team couldn’t avoid tapping into the wealth of public information available online. In short, they realized they could use doxing to their advantage.
Within a month, their inbox had received 4,000 emails, of which 1,000 contained links to other sites, mainly Facebook pages but also blogs and message boards. They received, for instance, over 5,500 video clips, each of which had to be scrutinized scene by scene to isolate evidence of criminal activity. Then components of different videos were stitched together, creating a narrative of a suspect’s activities over the course of the riot. Rankin and his team used these forums in an attempt to trace each piece of evidence back to its source, knowing that if they could zero in on whomever had filmed a given piece of online evidence, they might get testimony that could stand up in court.
Rankin, who’s still sifting through digital evidence on the riots a year and a half later, describes cybervigilantism campaigns as “a double-edged sword.” On one hand, the material helped police press over 500 charges against 173 people. On the other hand, it was unsubstantiated and morally questionable. “We had to discourage vigilantism through our messaging,” Rankin explains, but admits such initiatives were at times “very useful.”