David, a.k.a. Pharaoh, doesn’t hold a political office or opine for CNN. But this week, the 14-year-old hacker mounted what might have been one of the more personally damaging attacks against Ferguson, Mo.’s embattled police department: the name — and the address, and the Social Security number — of St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar.
That’s not all. Pharaoh, a self-proclaimed member of the loosely affiliated hacker collective Anonymous, has also obtained the name and Social Security number of a Ferguson police officer he believes was involved in 18-year-old Michael Brown’s fatal shooting last weekend. The Ferguson Police Department has said that name is not correct — though that doesn’t faze Pharaoh.
“The Ferguson PD actually tweeted at us saying that this is not the officer responsible for the murder,” Pharaoh said in a lengthy chat via IRC, Anonymous’s preferred communication platform. “But they could be lying.”
And if they’re not?
“There would be no collateral damage if the government would be answerable to its citizens,” another Anonymous member said.
This is the central paradox at the heart of “doxing,” a form of vigilante Internet justice that has surfaced in almost every national debate, scandal and tragedy of the past three years. The practice — deployed, in its purest and most high-profile form, by Anonymous — involves exposing the personal information of targeted individuals, often so that the public can harass them. Anonymous claims it is forcing transparency and putting power back in the hands of ordinary people. Police, and other critics, point out that doxing often amounts to little more than a mob-style witch hunt … and that Anonymous, not infrequently, gets its targets wrong.
Just this morning, the Twitter account @TheAnonMessage — one of Anonymous’s more popular mouthpieces, with more than 75,000 followers — tweeted the name of a “guilty” Ferguson police officer who, it later turned out, actually works in another town entirely. Twitter quickly suspended the account, but a replacement, @TheAnonMessage2, sprang up in its place.
“The powers that be will stop at nothing to silence us,” that account tweeted, later adding: “I’m not the only one with the dox … who’s to say someone else will release them?”
That idea — that everyone is potentially responsible, and thus nobody is — is central to Anonymous’s core ethical code, such as it exists. In psychology, this phenomenon falls in the same realm as the bystander effect: When responsibility is diffused among a network of people, no one individual feels accountable if/when something goes wrong.
For Anonymous, where even minor undertakings are crowdsourced among groups of faceless hackers, that’s particularly true: One faction gets the alleged officer’s name, another cross-references his identity against databases like Thomson Reuters’s Clear, and another undertakes the actual doxing. From there, more shadowy characters, none of them named — even, in most cases, among themselves — will publicize the information, max out the officer’s credit card or order 100 pizzas to his house. (That little stunt is called pizza-bombing, and it’s a lot less fun than it sounds.)
To Pharaoh, this is a morally justifiable process; he says he “trusts the other guys,” even if he doesn’t know them well. But what if, I ask him, he publishes the Social Security number of an innocent man, and it totally wrecks that guy’s life?
“You must remember that I was not directly involved with the people who found him or blamed him,” Pharaoh said. “I’m just his ‘doxer,’ I guess.” On Twitter, Pharaoh was little more strident:
Pharaoh is also not alone in believing that there’s a higher purpose in his work; that innocent people, doxed undeservedly, are essentially “collateral damage” in Anonymous’s larger war against government overreach. After all, there’s no doubt that power in Ferguson lies, unreservedly, with the police — to the detriment of free speech, free assembly and, some have argued, justice. Hacking is an opportunity, Anonymous argues, to seize justice back for the people. But even given that context, it doesn’t mean that doxing is morally all right.
“When doxing knowingly exposes others to a significant risk of dangerous vigilante action, it is unethical, for reasons that should be plain,” said Shannon Vallor, an associate professor of philosophy at Silicon Valley’s Santa Clara University. “But in cases such as Ferguson and Steubenville [the site of a controversial rape case], the unethical act arises partly from the perception that there are powerful thumbs on the scales of justice. You can try to stop it from happening by technical or legal means, but the most effective prevention is probably to keep your thumb off the scale.”
Until things in Ferguson are that simple, Pharaoh is sitting on some very valuable information.