How Anonymous got it right and wrong in Ferguson


No, this is not actually what hacking looks like. (REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Files )

On Thursday, a Twitter account self-identified with the hacking group Anonymous released the name and photos of an officer they claimed was responsible for the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager killed by police Saturday in a St. Louis suburb. Just the day before, a different name had been circulating online.

Both names were wrong, according to the St. Louis County Police Department. But other information, like  audio recordings of police dispatchers in the area, have turned out to be real -- and people on the ground still credit Anonymous with being one of the best sources of information they have access to, especially as they believe local police have not been forthcoming with details of the tragedy.

Audio from the St. Louis County police dispatch was released Wednesday by Anonymous. The audio is from Aug. 9, when a Ferguson, Mo., police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager. (YouTube: Anonymous)

Anonymous has gained an international following for its reputation for sifting through online data to piece together stories and information about ongoing events. But as Ferguson shows, the group is not infallible.

Gabriella Coleman, a professor at McGill University, who is perhaps the foremost academic expert on the group (and will soon publish a book on her research), helped us parse just how Anonymous works, what went wrong in Ferguson and where the group goes from here.

So what happened? 

After hearing from local rap artist Tef Poe about the tense situation in Ferguson after the shooting, the group launched "OpFerguson" to raise the profile of the incident, Coleman says. According to the rapper, he didn't so much specifically reach out to the group for help as they responded to his postings on social media about the situation. Then members of the group began sharing messages of support through social media, while a subset began developing a strategy in an online chat program known as IRC.

That set this operation apart from more recent campaigns the group has undertaken, according to Coleman. IRC, she says, was largely abandoned by the group in favor of more secure communication networks after a series of prosecutions targeting the group. "That was interesting because it felt very old school -- but on the other hand, from a security question, it raised eyebrows as well," she says.

Historically, Coleman says, investigations have been led by a select group of skilled Anonymous members -- often working privately, but closely with individuals in the community affected. They would meticulously comb through online information and connect with those who have first-hand knowledge of the situation in an attempt to bring transparency and accountability to some of the most heart wrenching cases, she says.

Many of those veterans, some of whom she says had largely backed away from the group, came back online for OpFerguson -- but there was also a deluge of newcomers to the movement. The newcomers may have emerged because of how prominent the issue had become, said Coleman. In the past, Anonymous helped elevate stories from the local to national level -- but the Brown shooting was already being covered nationally by the time Anonymous became involved.

Wait, so let's talk more about how this was all coordinated? 

This morning, Coleman says, there was a public debate on the OpFerguson IRC channel in which pictures of the individual some claimed was the officer were shared, along with circumstantial evidence from his Facebook page.

Coleman says she isn't surprised that the group got it wrong, because many on the IRC channel argued against releasing the name.  "It’s definitely the case this morning, when they were debating whether to release the name [that] a lot of people admitted the evidence was strong but circumstantial," Coleman says. But "they still favored releasing it because it would force the police department to eventually release the real name."

Twitter postings from another self-identified member of Anonymous appear to confirm that there was an internal dispute about the veracity of the name before one self-identified member of the group released it on Twitter.

Why did tactics, like the move back to IRC, change? 

Coleman has a few theories: One is that popular attention to Ferguson has attracted new activists to the group -- not all of whom may know about the potential pitfalls of using IRC for sensitive communications.

Another, perhaps more concerning  theory is that this may be a so-called "false flag" operation, she says. That's when government agents or others who oppose the group plant erroneous information or urge members to move forward without the full picture to hurt the groups' credibility, she says.

While Coleman admits she has no evidence for this latter theory, she argues it's well within the realm of possibility. Government agents or moles have been known to infiltrate activist groups and allegedly encourage the worst of their behavior in the past, after all. (See: COINTELPRO)

According to Coleman, some on the IRC channel raised concerns that the push to release a name this morning may have been a false flag. And, she says, it's not the first time members of the collective have suspected as much: In Operation BART, a project responding to fatal shootings by officers associated with the San Francisco transit system, some within the group believed a hacker attacked and leaked customer data from Web sites associated with the transit system in order to discredit the group.

"In the end there was actually very little evidence that it was a false flag, and the person who did it wrote this justification about why she went and did it. She claimed to be a 13-year-old French hacker who was hacking for the first time, which I don’t think is quite true," Coleman says. "But ever since then, many different operations that are controversial will spur Anonymous to ask that question -- understandably."

How often does Anonymous get it wrong?

On the whole, the group is actually pretty accurate, according to Coleman -- she specifically points to Operation Steubenville as an example of when Anonymous got many things correct and located important data.

And the group has made some correct calls in Ferguson as well: Audio recordings released by the group Wednesday that appear to show confusion among dispatchers on the day of the shooting were confirmed as authentic by the county police -- it's unclear exactly how the group found the audio, but it seems like it was obtained through an online service that re-broadcasts local emergency responder radio signals, rather than through illicitly infiltrating systems.

According to Tef Poe, Anonymous has been an important source of information for those on the ground -- amplifying relevant news on Twitter and serving as a source of new information as the local population struggles with the lack of new facts about the Brown shooting from local law enforcement.

"The only facts that the people St. Louis and Ferguson get -- the only new leads -- are from Anonymous, because the police department won't tell us anything," he told the Post. "You hear people in the street talking to people about Anonymous -- it's completely wild to me, because you hear 40-year-old women saying, 'Well, Anonymous said this on Twitter.'"

But there has been at least one other high-profile case in which Anonymous may have pointed the finger at the wrong guy: Looking for the man who allegedly drove teen Amanda Todd to suicide.

And what happens when they do get it wrong? 

Nothing good. First, the group loses some credibility. "People really need to harshly judge the accuracy of this group, given that they've now given false information about several important things,” Sgt. Colby Dolly, a spokesman for the St. Louis County Police, said Thursday.

But it also may put whomever the group erroneously identifies in harm's way. According to Dolly, authorities are trying to locate the person identified by Anonymous to warn him about the potential risks.

And it seems that some in Anonymous are rethinking their finger-pointing ways. Shortly after police rebutted the identification made by some in the group Thursday, the Twitter account that released the name was suspended by the social network. That person's backup Twitter account then said they were getting out of the identification game, as least for now.

So how much of Anonymous is about publicity and transparency versus hacking?

That's sort of a tricky question. Those who associate with Anonymous have widely different political and ideological beliefs -- from anarchists to progressives, and almost everywhere in between. As such, there is a lot of controversy around tactics and methodology inside the group. A majority just want to bring attention to an issue, says Coleman, and aren't entirely comfortable with the idea of violating the privacy of non-public figures. But some still believe identifying the officer who shot Brown would be in the public interest.

In the hacking community, "it attracts those with some pretty deep technical skills to those with no technical skills," Coleman says. "Definitely a handful of people" are very bright programmers and hackers, she says, but they tend to be in the minority. Many of the more prominent technical exploits, like distributed denial of service attacks, require less skill. Even those with less technical prowess can assist in those types of attack, which typically knock Web sites offline and can be achieved by buying the computing power of a botnet to overwhelm a target. According to local reports, Ferguson’s Web site went dark Tuesday morning due to a flood of traffic that "just kept coming," which is consistent with this particular kind of digital assault.

And what happens next? 

That's unclear. There are changes afoot in Ferguson -- the Missouri Highway Patrol has taken over crowd control there, and Tef Poe says things appeared to be settling down when he left for a show in Memphis.

"It feels like a small victory, and Anonymous really did help," he says. "I don't think anyone who was hands on with the protests could deny that. They released information."

Have more to say about this topic? We take your questions every week in our weekly livechat, Switchback, Fridays at 11 a.m. ET. The comment box is open, so submit your questions now.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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