According to media reports on Sunday, hackers identifying themselves as part of Anonymous, claimed to have uncovered Daesh plots to attack cities around the globe. It was the kind of claim we have come to expect and take seriously from Anonymous, a loose affiliation of hacking activists (their t-shirts say ‘hacktivists’) working in the name of a broadly anarchic liberalism to undermine the power of corporate capitalism as well as reactionary organisations such as Scientology and the Klu Klux Klan. Their latest campaign (codename OpParisIntel) has been directed at the Daesh propaganda network and they have claimed to have identified or taken down thousands of accounts with likes to Daesh.
Perhaps aware of the criticism their actions might draw, Anonymous posted a poll through their official Twitter news channel, @YourAnonNews, asking if people supported the goals of OpParis. Currently, 8664 people have voted and 84% of people are in favour of the splinter group’s agenda. It’s perhaps understandable why people should respond so positively to the campaign. Anonymous are doing something that we would hope the authorities would have been doing for as long as we’ve been engaged with Daesh. Again, it’s something often expressed. Why don’t authorities do more to shut down the Daesh propaganda machine?
There is a romanticism about Anonymous which is hard to deny. They have their own brand, having appropriated the Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta, made into a film in 2005. They have also proved to be masters of social media, producing high quality videos that feed off the mythologies that many young geeks have been brought up with. It’s the Stan Lee school of morality in which well meaning individuals don masks in order to fight crime. In this case, they are fighting one of the greatest criminal organisations the world has ever known.
Except, of course, that what they are doing is utterly misguided.
Are we really to believe that America’s NSA or Britain’s GCHQ lack the skills possessed by Anonymous? Do we genuinely think that our security services are scratching their heads whilst some middle-aged fat guy declares in a loud voice with barely concealed admiration ‘how the hell do these pesky kids do all this?’ That’s how it would play out in a Hollywood movie, with a screen spanning a military bunker displaying the world map one moment, a message from Anonymous the next. But if that’s what’s happening in secure bunkers in the United States and Great Britain, then were are in a lot more trouble than we previously thought.
Without knowing what is actually happening in the world of our cyber warriors, we do know that they have been listening to the chatter across social media for a very long time. So wouldn’t it also be likely that they have long since hacked accounts linked to ISIS and routinely read the direct messaging going on in the background? And is it also not possible that our snoops are quite happy that these channels exist to provide a running commentary about the inner workings of Daesh?
It’s likely because that’s what we’ve been doing this for nearly a century since the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) was formed in 1919 and America’s NSA formed in 1952. The great achievement of British security in World War 2 was not that they managed to break the Enigma Code, though that was itself a monumental achievement, but that the Allies could use the information gathered without revealing the fact to the Germans (though an American spy is said to have informed the Germans as early as August 1943).
Reading and listening to other people’s conversations is the very reason the British Chancellor visited GCHQ last week and announced the formation of a new National Cycle Centre, showing the shift in emphasis away from sigint (signals intelligence) towards the ever growing world of elint (electronic intelligence). Nobody in that world would do as Anonymous has done, burning intelligence assets simply out of a sense of moral outrage or to prove that they could.
What Anonymous may well be doing is getting in the way of security services doing their job. Anonymous simply provides a highly efficient method for Daesh to test the security of their communications. All it will do is push more people towards unbreakable cryptography which, despite the best assurances of our governments, they are powerless to stop. Meanwhile, the leaks and small talk emerging into the open will dry up and the one small hint that might prevent the next event like Paris will be missing.
Anonymous might have the right motives, admirable skills and not a little panache. It’s just not clear which side benefits the most by their vigilantism.