Monday, March 21, 2016

The Slimy Underbelly of the Anonymous Collective

The Anonymous Collective, for those unaware, are a loose grouping of activist hackers. Their vigilante-style justice, while superficially appealing, leads to heavy-handed, self-righteous attacks against sworn enemies. Once, I held I kind of grudging admiration for the work that they did, as it agreed with my sensibilities. In particular, the protracted attacks against the supposed Church of Scientology won my respect and stoked my curiosity. If I had to describe the basic composition of the group, I'd ask my audience to imagine the creators and the sardonic humor of the abrasive animated comedy television show South Park.

More recently, Anonymous hacked into Donald Trump's files, a move that might be satisfying until we contemplate the legality of its stated aims and tactics.

The collective “Anonymous” claimed on Thursday that it had hacked GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, releasing what it alleged was his Social Security number, cell phone number and other personal information. The decentralized group of international activist hackers has been linked to numerous high-profile incidents over the years, including Internet attacks on governments, major corporations, financial institutions and religious groups.

I bring this subject up because, seven months ago, I too was a target.

In August of last year, I began investigating the fascinating legal case of an anti-Scientology protester and Anonymous hacktivist. I know his pseudonym and real name, but to spare myself from further headaches, neither will be mentioned here. As the story went, the man's vociferous, noisy protests outside of a Washington, DC, Scientology church ended up getting him eventually sent to jail. He had been a Scientologist earlier in life, dropped out altogether, and then became a constant, energetic protester outside the Dupont Circle-area center.

His accused crime was that of stalking, a District statue that was only on the books as a way to more effectively protect women from potential assailants and harassing behavior. The Church of Scientology, out of fear and likely to even the score, twisted the legal language in its favor, sending Anonymous to prison for a time.

The legal wrangling resulted in a trial some months later. The judge hearing the case dismissed all charges in utter dismay, stating that the law as intended simply did not apply in this context. Anonymous was freed and then left Washington. He may have believed that his cover was airtight, but I will say that it was relatively easy to trace him. In hindsight, I learned a hard lesson from the nastiness, namely that I should never play into the paranoid fears of a potentially unstable person. If I had it to go over again, I would never have sought to pursue the story.

Working with a lawyer who had observed the legal proceedings in DC with rapt interest, we tracked the hacker to his current location, several hundred miles north. My intention, I cannot emphasize enough, had only been to interview him, to give him a chance to plead his case in a public forum. The attorney who directed me to this assignment wanted to know more to satisfy his own curiosity, and felt also that he was giving me work. I should have known better; my naivete was showing. It was like interviewing a kleptomaniac and being surprised, by the conclusion, that a few possessions of mine had mysteriously disappeared.

The hacker's story was unique, but everyone I consulted who was attached to the case, even his lawyer, declined politely to provide any additional information. My partner had a knack for locating missing persons, which is how I stumbled across the hacker’s tracks. If I had it to go over again, I'd ask why it was so easy for him to locate a person who clearly did not want to attract any attention from anyone, for any reason. This is a truism for anyone in the Anonymous Collective and if I’d done my research properly, I’d never have sought to engage.

I made two or three direct requests to interview Anonymous, responding by way of a form e-mail on his webpage. My mistake was being persistent. All I did was stoke the fears of someone who was already justly paranoid. Three or four days later, I logged into my computer one morning, only to find that I was no longer in control of it. Instead, he was, and to punish me for my efforts in trying to find him, he decided to terrorize my life for most of a week.

Anonymous gained access to my e-mail account and my cell phone. The latter has never been the same, as he deliberately damaged a few features here and there. Friends of mine in my address book and e-mail account were sent threatening, nonsensical text messages and e-mails. I still have never determined what precisely was written and sent along, as I have no record of it myself. My Sent Mail folder is no help. I was told latter that the messages were rambling screeds, full of unconjugated verbs. It was a curious move by someone surely articulate enough to speak the Queen's English, but much that transpired in that stressful week will never be known to me.

I filed two charges against him. One was for identity theft, as he had gained access to my bank account and opened a second account under my name, just to prove he could do it. I swiftly reported the crime and a fraud investigation commenced. About two weeks later, I received a letter in the mail confirming that, as I knew beforehand, I had not opened the account myself and was not at fault. It was fortunate that he'd chosen to steal a few dollars from me, because identity theft cannot easily be prosecuted unless theft has taken place. Those of us who have been victims of crimes like these can attest to how impotent laws on the books can be.

Anonymous was clever. I'll give him that much. I had to replace a cable modem, close an account in one bank, open a new account with a new bank, change about twenty passwords, and gain access to my own information in a sneaky sort of way. I deliberately stayed offline for three days solid, then made my changes swiftly before he recognized what was happening and tried to keep me from regaining control. It's terrifying and traumatic to know that your personal data is in the hands of someone with nefarious, uncertain intentions. His hacking skills were refined enough that he even tracked my internet activity to a local library and prevented me from accessing the Internet. This kept me from logging into my e-mail account for almost a week, which is practically everyone's lifeline these days.

After much research, I determined a way to get around the cyber-blockade. Anonymous had discovered my IP address from the e-mails I'd sent and had proceeded from there. That is how he gained access to my files and my information. I don't want to spell out directly what I did to regain access, for fear that Anonymous members might take note of it in the future. What I will say is that, after installing a program, I was at least able to read and respond to my electronic correspondence and the inevitable backlog. The next morning, I observed with pleasure that Anonymous had tried for hours to take apart the program I'd installed, unsuccessfully. After that, he either gave up or determined that he was through punishing me.

Local law enforcement worked with me and I'm thankful for their efforts. Along with identity theft, I had him charged for making harassing statements. He made threats against my personal safety, which I retained on my laptop and then presented in front of a sympathetic police offer. The law has not always kept pace with the new reality of internet-based crimes, which hampers prosecution. Though mostly successful in covering his tracks and clinging to a grey area in the law, Anonymous went too far. This proves to be the undoing of most criminals, and here was no exception.

When I tried to appeal to a higher authority up the food chain I had no success. A brief talk with the FBI got me nowhere. I spoke with a very condescending officer who, in our one and only phone conversation, impatiently asked me a series of patronizing questions. Eventually I gave up. In her eyes, I merely needed to take my laptop into the shop or consult with an IT specialist. Helplessly, I tried to explain my situation again, but, for the most part, Anonymous had been careful to not directly incriminate himself.

If I had to wager a guess, I'd say that Anonymous wanted to scare me, to show me how easily he could gain access to my data. He wanted to teach me a lesson, which I received loud and clear. I'm grateful that he hasn't resumed his attacks, though I am now much better prepared for the next one, if it arrives. In this post, I could have revealed his real name, his location, and the tactics he used, but I fear further reprisal and don't want to be sued for libel. I don't want to stoop to his level. Let this post be a warning to everyone.

Anyone who has been a victim of online crime recognizes how imprecise and inexact a process prosecution can be. The Internet has given rise to a new Wild West, which we embrace at our own risk. Crimes of passion seem appealing. Something must be done, we assert. I once felt the same way, but no longer. I am no anarchist. My new goal is to improve enforcement and strengthen the rules that govern our society. That happens through direct participation in the process, not standing outside of it and resorting to criminal means. I hope my case will serve as an example to ensure that my story will never be repeated to anyone, at any time.

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