When the world's most powerful governments struggle to shut down terrorist group ISIS, what can a group of shadowy hackers do to make a dent?
We're already beginning to find out. The group has already claimed some early success — thousands of Twitter accounts shut down.
The Independent, a media outlet in the U.K. is reporting that Anonymous has posted the address of a person it claims is an ISIS recruiter in Europe.
CBC Hamilton's Conrad Collaco spoke with Ken Owen, a Ph.D. candidate at McMaster's DeGroote School of Business and an expert in cybersecurity about the role Anonymous can play in a war with ISIS. You can listen to the full interview by clicking the link at the top of this page or you can read an edited and abridged transcript of the interview below.
Q: What role can Anonymous play in a war with ISIS?
ISIS is a bit of a shadow organization. You don't see them until they appear. So is Anonymous. They both have the same kind of view of the world. They are very hard to find, very hard to see, very hard to hit. In this case, Anonymous has an advantage. They are very good at tracking down electronic information and using it to their benefit.
Can a government have a relationship with a cloud? With a shadow? No, it can't. - Ken Owen,, McMaster University
Q: Anonymous has already made claims of success in their efforts against ISIS. Do you believe them?
I believe them. The numbers I have heard are about 5,500 Twitter accounts and some other websites. Anonymous is looking for language in Twitter postings that reflects a sympathetic eye towards ISIS. They report those accounts and the social media organizations delete them as required. If you get enough people looking and reading, you're going to find them pretty easily. This interferes with the way ISIS likes to promote itself and recruit.
ISIS needs people to follow their Twitter accounts before it becomes powerful. People who are sympathetic to their world view will develop a relationship with them. If Anonymous keeps disrupting these accounts, ISIS will have difficulty building a following. They will have more difficulty getting their message out.
Q: What about when Anonymous identifies, as they have, the address of a person they suspect of recruiting for ISIS? These allegations don't come with the force of law behind them. Should we be concerned about allegations without due process?
With a legal entity in a country you have due process. You have rights that are protected even for the guilty. With Anonymous, when they out someone, you run the risk of vigilante justice. It becomes a more dangerous thing. This has happened with Anonymous when they have gone looking for pedophiles and others when they have falsely accused somebody and that person ends up at risk and suffers some injury. But they share that information with the public and the media. The media sends that information to the police.
Q: Can federal governments partner with Anonymous in a fight with ISIS?
Anonymous isn't an organization, it's a belief. It's a way of thinking. It has no hierarchy. No organizational structure. If you believe this and are part of the spaces where they meet, you can post a mission, which they call an OP — an operation. There is no organizational structure behind it. Can a government have a relationship with a cloud? With a shadow? No, it can't.
But it can take advantage of what that shadow is doing and leverage some of the knowledge that comes out of it.
Q: Does Anonymous have a history of participating in these types of conflicts?
Yes. They are a vigilante group based in the internet and that lives in cyberspace. They've done a lot of interesting things. Some of it is questionable. Some is good social value.