British Columbia

Anonymous: what is it and how serious are its threats?

Security expert Gabriella Coleman explains how Anonymous is evolving and how seriously officials should take the group's threats of revenge.

Security expert Gabriella Coleman explains how the hackers' causes and methods have evolved

The international hacktivist organization Anonymous has threatened to take action against the RCMP after a police-related shooting killed one man in Dawson Creek. (Getty Images)

The international hacktivist group Anonymous is making headlines in B.C. after vowing to avenge a masked man who was shot and killed by RCMP in Dawson Creek last Thursday. 

Shortly after the shooting, Anonymous announced the launch of Operation Anon Down to achieve "justice (and vengeance if necessary) for [their] fallen comrade in Dawson Creek."

On Sunday, some B.C. and Dawson Creek RCMP websites crashed, though those events have not been officially linked to Anonymous.

Gabriella Coleman is a security expert and author of Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower spy: The many faces of Anonymous. She also holds the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University. Here are her insights on Anonymous and how the collective is evolving.

Who are the members?

"Anonymous is a little bit hard to define, because it's a collective name that anyone around the world can take," said Coleman.

Much of what we know about the group's demographics comes from cyberattack arrests made in 2011 and 2012.

Coleman said the organization is associated particularly with youth ages 15 to 35. Besides their affinity for the internet, there are very few other traits that all group members share, most likely because the appeal of anonymity tends to attract very different profiles, she added.

2. Their causes

In the past, Anonymous was mainly involved in internet pranking. Since 2008, however, the group has engaged in more direct and risky forms of activism, Coleman said.

Gabriella Coleman is a professor at the University of McGill. (University of McGill)

The group does not have a single mandate, but their "bread and butter issues" include fighting censorship, fighting surveillance and free speech issues, she said.

More recently, the group has also added police brutality to their list, most notably with Operation Ferguson, the campaign to support citizens protesting the shooting of Michael Brown in Missouri.

Since then, a number of their operations have targeted law enforcement officers, especially when citizens have been harmed, shot or killed by police, Coleman said.

3. Their modus operandi

The group frequently uses what is called a "distributed denial of service attack," or DDOS, to target its victims, Coleman said. 

This occurs when hackers drive overwhelming traffic to a site, causing the server to shut down and become inaccessible. This form of attack, though unlikely to cause serious damage, usually attracts a large amount of media attention.

Anonymous has also claimed credit for publicizing confidential documents and intruding into secure computer systems to exfiltrate sensitive data. 

One of the more controversial techniques that is gaining traction within the collective is doxing, Coleman said.

This is used most often against police officers and involves the release of private personal information such as full name, home address or phone number, said Coleman. 

4. The credibility of their threats

Coleman said it is "very likely" that Anonymous will make good on their threats to the RCMP. 

"They don't usually make a call and then do nothing," Coleman said. 

However, Coleman said it is difficult to predict how severe or vengeful Anonymous' action will be. 

"Many times they will exaggerate what they will do."

In the case of the Dawson Creek shooting, Coleman said she would not be surprised if the organization resorted to doxing the police officers involved.

"That's the most credible and real threat that may occur."

To hear the full interview with Gabriella Coleman, listen to the audio labelled: Anonymous - what is this international hacktivist group all about?